The 1900 census indicates that her family reported that Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July 1892. The 1910 census gives her age as 16, and a birth date of April 15, 1894 appears on subsequent documents and was observed as her birthday by the Smith family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, but later interviews with Smith's family and contemporaries contain no mention of them among her siblings.
She was the daughter of Laura (born Owens) and William Smith, a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher (he was listed in the 1870 census as a "minister of the gospel", in Moulton, Lawrence County, Alabama). He died while his daughter was too young to remember him. By the time Bessie was nine, her mother and a brother had also died. Her older sister Viola took charge of caring for her siblings.
To earn money for their impoverished household, Smith and her brother Andrew began busking on the streets of Chattanooga; she sang and danced, and he accompanied her on the guitar. Their favorite location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets, in the heart of the city's African-American community.
In 1904, her oldest brother, Clarence, left home, joining a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. "If Bessie had been old enough, she would have gone with him," said Clarence's widow, Maud. "That's why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child."
In 1912, Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Stokes troupe and arranged an audition for his sister with the managers of the troupe, Lonnie and Cora Fisher. She was hired as a dancer rather than a singer, because the company already included the well-known singer Ma Rainey. Smith eventually moved on to performing in various chorus lines, making the "81" Theater in Atlanta her home base. She also performed in shows on the black-owned (Theater Owners Booking Association) (T.O.B.A.) circuit and became its biggest star after she signed a recording contract with Columbia Records.
Smith's recording career began in 1923. She was then living in Philadelphia, where she met Jack Gee, a security guard, whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first record was being released. During the marriage Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of the day, heading her own shows, which sometimes featured as many as 40 troupers, and touring in her own custom-built railroad car. Their marriage was stormy with infidelity on both sides, including numerous female lovers for Bessie. Gee was impressed by the money but never adjusted to show business life or to Smith's bisexuality. In 1929, when she learned of his affair with another singer, Gertrude Saunders, Smith ended the relationship, although neither of them sought a divorce.
Smith later entered a common-law marriage with an old friend, Richard Morgan, who was Lionel Hampton's uncle. She stayed with him until her death.
All contemporary accounts indicate that while Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, she probably helped her develop a stage presence. Smith began forming her own act around 1913, at Atlanta's "81" Theater. By 1920, she had established a reputation in the South and along the East Coast.
In 1920, sales of over 100,000 copies of "Crazy Blues," recorded for Okeh Records by the singer Mamie Smith (no relation), pointed to a new market. The recording industry had not directed its product to black people, but the success of the record led to a search for female blues singers. Bessie Smith was signed to Columbia Records in 1923 by Frank Walker, a talent agent who had seen her perform years earlier. Her first session for Columbia was on February 15, 1923. For most of 1923, her records were issued on Columbia's regular A-series. When the company established a "race records" series, Smith's "Cemetery Blues" (September 26, 1923) was the first issued.
Both sides of her first record, "Downhearted Blues" backed with "Gulf Coast Blues", were hits (an earlier recording of "Downhearted Blues" by its co-writer Alberta Hunter had previously been released by Paramount Records). Smith became a headliner on the T.O.B.A. circuit and rose to become its top attraction in the 1920s. Working a heavy theater schedule during the winter and performing in tent shows the rest of the year (eventually traveling in her own railroad car), Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. Columbia nicknamed her "Queen of the Blues," but the press soon upgraded her title to "Empress of the Blues".
Smith had a strong contralto voice, which recorded well from her first session, which was conducted when recordings were made acoustically. With the advent of electrical recording (her first electrical recording was "Cake Walking Babies [From Home]", recorded on May 5, 1925), the sheer power of her voice was even more evident. She was also able to benefit from the new technology of radio broadcasting, even on stations in the segregated South. For example, after giving a concert for a white-only audience at a theater in Memphis, Tennessee, in October 1923, she then performed a late-night concert on station WMC, which was well received by the radio audience.
She made 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, notably Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, and Charlie Green.
Smith's career was cut short by the Great Depression, which nearly put the recording industry out of business, and the advent of "talkies", which spelled the end of vaudeville. She never stopped performing, however. The days of elaborate vaudeville shows were over, but Smith continued touring and occasionally sang in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway musical, Pansy. The play was a flop; top critics said she was its only asset.
In 1929, Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a two-reeler, St. Louis Blues, based on W. C. Handy's song of the same name. In the film, directed by Dudley Murphy and shot in Astoria, Queens, she sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, the Hall Johnson Choir, the pianist James P. Johnson and a string section—a musical environment radically different from that of any of her recordings.
In 1933, John Hammond, who also mentored Billie Holiday, asked Smith to record four sides for Okeh (which had been acquired by Columbia Records in 1925). He claimed to have found her in semi-obscurity, working as a hostess in a speakeasy on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia. Smith worked at Art's Cafe on Ridge Avenue, but not as a hostess and not until the summer of 1936. In 1933, when she made the Okeh sides, she was still touring. Hammond was known for his selective memory and gratuitous embellishments.
Smith was paid a non-royalty fee of $37.50 for each selection on these Okeh sides, which were her last recordings. Made on November 24, 1933, they serve as a hint of the transformation she made in her performances as she shifted her blues artistry into something that fit the swing era. The relatively modern accompaniment is notable. The band included such swing era musicians as the trombonist Jack Teagarden, the trumpeter Frankie Newton, the tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, the pianist Buck Washington, the guitarist Bobby Johnson, and the bassist Billy Taylor. Benny Goodman, who happened to be recording with Ethel Waters in the adjoining studio, dropped by and is barely audible on one selection. Hammond was not entirely pleased with the results, preferring to have Smith revisit her old blues sound. "Take Me for a Buggy Ride" and "Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)", both written by Wesley Wilson, were among her most popular recordings. Billie Holiday, who credited Smith as a major influence (along with Louis Armstrong), made her first record for Columbia three days later with the same band.
On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car crash while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her lover, Richard Morgan, was driving and misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck ahead of him. Tire marks at the scene suggested that Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of Smith's old Packard. Smith, who was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window, took the full brunt of the impact. Morgan escaped without injuries.
The first people on the scene were a Memphis surgeon, Dr. Hugh Smith (no relation), and his fishing partner, Henry Broughton. In the early 1970s, Hugh Smith gave a detailed account of his experience to Bessie's biographer Chris Albertson. This is the most reliable eyewitness testimony about the events surrounding her death.
After stopping at the accident scene, Hugh Smith examined the singer, who was lying in the middle of the road with obviously severe injuries. He estimated she had lost about a half pint of blood and immediately noted a major traumatic injury to her right arm; it had been almost completely severed at the elbow. He stated that this injury alone did not cause her death. Although the light was poor, he observed only minor head injuries. He attributed her death to extensive and severe crush injuries to the entire right side of her body, consistent with a sideswipe collision.
Broughton and Smith moved the singer to the shoulder of the road. Smith dressed her arm injury with a clean handkerchief and asked Broughton to go to a house about 500 feet off the road to call an ambulance.
By the time Broughton returned, about 25 minutes later, Bessie Smith was in shock. Time passed with no sign of the ambulance, so Hugh Smith suggested that they take her into Clarksdale in his car. He and Broughton had almost finished clearing the back seat when they heard the sound of a car approaching at high speed. Smith flashed his lights in warning, but the oncoming car failed to stop and plowed into his car at full speed. It sent his car careening into Bessie Smith's overturned Packard, completely wrecking it. The oncoming car ricocheted off Hugh Smith's car into the ditch on the right, barely missing Broughton and Bessie Smith.
The young couple in the new car did not have life-threatening injuries. Two ambulances arrived on the scene from Clarksdale, one from the black hospital, summoned by Broughton, the other from the white hospital, acting on a report from the truck driver, who had not seen the accident victims.
Bessie Smith was taken to the G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale, where her right arm was amputated. She died that morning without regaining consciousness. After her death, an often repeated but now discredited story emerged that she had died as a result of having been refused admission to a whites-only hospital in Clarksdale. The jazz writer and producer John Hammond gave this account in an article in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat magazine. The circumstances of Smith's death and the rumor promoted by Hammond formed the basis for Edward Albee's 1959 one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith.
"The Bessie Smith ambulance would not have gone to a white hospital, you can forget that," Hugh Smith told Albertson. "Down in the Deep South cotton country, no ambulance driver, or white driver, would even have thought of putting a colored person off in a hospital for white folks."
Smith's funeral was held in Philadelphia a little over a week later, on October 4, 1937. Her body was originally laid out at Upshur's funeral home. As word of her death spread through Philadelphia's black community, the body had to be moved to the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge to accommodate the estimated 10,000 mourners who filed past her coffin on Sunday, October 3. Contemporary newspapers reported that her funeral was attended by about seven thousand people. Far fewer mourners attended the burial at Mount Lawn Cemetery, in nearby Sharon Hill. Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone for his estranged wife, once or twice pocketing money raised for that purpose.
Smith's grave was unmarked until a tombstone was erected on August 7, 1970, paid for by the singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith.
Dory Previn wrote a song about Joplin and the tombstone, "Stone for Bessie Smith", for her album Mythical Kings and Iguanas.
The Afro-American Hospital, now the Riverside Hotel, was the site of the dedication of the fourth historical marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Three recordings by Smith were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, an award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have "qualitative or historical significance".
In 2002, Smith's recording of "Downhearted Blues" was included in the National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. The board annually selects recordings that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
"Downhearted Blues" was included in the list of Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001. It is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock 'n' roll.
The U.S. Postal Service issued a 29-cent commemorative postage stamp honoring Smith in 1994.
Technical faults in the majority of her original gramophone recordings (especially variations in recording speed, which raised or lowered the apparent pitch of her voice) misrepresented the "light and shade" of her phrasing, interpretation and delivery. They altered the apparent key of her performances (sometimes raised or lowered by as much as a semitone). The "centre hole" in some of the master recordings had not been in the true middle of the master disc, so that there were wide variations in tone, pitch, key and phrasing, as commercially released records revolved around the spindle.
Given those historic limitations, the current digitally remastered versions of her work deliver significant improvements in the sound quality of Smith's performances. Some critics believe that the American Columbia Records compact disc releases are somewhat inferior to subsequent transfers made by the late John R. T. Davies for Frog Records.The popular musical Bessie: The Life & Music of Bessie Smith, by the playwright Douglas M. Parker, follows Smith's rise, personal life and career, incorporating many of the songs that made her famous.
The 1948 short story "Blue Melody", by J. D. Salinger, and the 1959 play The Death of Bessie Smith, by Edward Albee, are based on Smith's life and death, but poetic license was taken by both authors; for instance, Albee's play distorts the circumstances of her medical treatment, or lack of it, before her death, attributing it to racist medical practitioners.
Bessie's Back in Town, a musical in production by Barry Edelson, presents as accurately as possible aspects of her life and death, while remaining true to her music.
The playwright Angelo Parra wrote the 2001 musical The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, with Miche Braden in the title role.
In the video game series BioShock (1 and 2), Smith is portrayed as a cameo of a character by the name of Grace Holloway. Smith's music can be heard during the loading screen and in the level Paupers Drop, and in the various hallways and rooms of the sunken city. Her 1929 song "I'm Wild About That Thing" is (anachronistically) included in the sequel, BioShock: Infinite, set in 1912.
HBO released a movie about Smith, Bessie, starring Queen Latifah, on May 16, 2015.
"Bessie Smith", a song by the Band, is about her.