Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith (1894-1937) Singer

Bessie Smith was born on April 15, 1894, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her career began in 1912 when she sang in a show with Ma Rainey. Her first recording, “Downhearted Blues”, established her as the most successful black vocalist of her time. More than any other performer, she was responsible for introducing the blues into the mainstream of American popular music. She recorded regularly until 1928, touring both the North and the South, and appearing in the 1929 film St. Louis Blues. The Great Depression of the 1930’s was tough on the recording and entertainment industry, and Smith’s career went into a decline. Matters weren’t helped by her increasingly frequent episodes of binge drinking. She made her last recording in 1933. After a three year hiatus in performing, she again began to appear in clubs and shows, but died before another recording session could be arranged. In all, she made over two hundred recordings, including some famous duets with Louis Armstrong.

It was commonly asserted that Ma Rainey initiated Bessie Smith into lesbian sex, though there is no hard evidence for this. What is known is the Smith frequently got into trouble with her jealous second husband, Jack Gee, over her affairs with women such as Lillian Simpson, a chorus girl in Smith’s touring show, Harlem Frolics. Like Rainey, Smith sang songs with explicit lesbian content such as “It’s Dirty But Good” from 1930.

Smith was famous for her excessive appetites – for home-cooked Southern food, for moonshine, and for the tenderloin districts of the cities she performed in. Bessie Smith died in an automobile accident on September 26, 1937 in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

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“The Icon History Display was created by a student intern and is not meant to replace a comprehensive search on these historical figures. Content on these biographies was created from the following sources: Queers in History: The Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Historical Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Transgenders by Keith Stern (2009); The Gay 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Gay Men and Lesbians, Past and Present by Paul Russell (1995). To suggest an addition or change contact us at or 217-206-8316.”