Bessie “Empress of the Blues” Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894 to a life of poverty and grew to become the largest-selling recording artist of her day. Smith was known for her boisterous personality which helped to amplify her singing and career even more. Her talent was able to not only bring her up from obscurity and grant her wealth, but she was also able to help save Columbia Records from bankruptcy twice.
While there were many rumors surrounding the relationship between Smith and Ma Rainey, including that she had been tutored and also possibly kidnapped by Ma Rainey, the two were actually known collaborators and both queer women. Many of Rainey’s songs alluded to her lesbian affairs while she was married to Will Rainey. Some often believe that Smith and Rainey’s relationship may have been more than platonic, with Rainey introducing Smith to the idea of being with women. Either way, the two women were able to help one another become more successful and their short-lived friendship is one for the history books.
Like many famous and notable performers, Smith suffered from alcoholism and while she could keep herself from drinking for long periods of time, when she did drink she often indulged in binges that were infamous among her troupe and family. Because of these binges, Smith’s bisexuality became well known to those in her social circles.
When the popular music genre changed from jazz to swing, Smith was able to adapt her sound to keep up with the times. She was also able to do many collaborations with swing artists which helped her stay popular even as music was growing and evolving past the genre that made her popular in the first place.
Bessie Smith paved the way for other black artists that would not have been there had she not persevered and created her own space thanks to her amazing voice.