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Bessie Smith's Death

Bessie Smith

The life and death of Bessie Smith:

She was one of the most popular blues singers of the 1920's and '30's. Nicknamed the "Empress of Blues", she was a major influence on other jazz singers.

Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, daughter of William and Laura Smith. To help her poor family, she and a brother would perform in the streets – singing and dancing.

She joined a performing troupe as a dancer in 1912 and began her recording career in 1923.

Bessie Smith, 1920's

She had early hits with "Downhearted Blues" …

… Gulf Coast Blues" …

...and made 160 recordings for Columbia Records.

Bessie Smith, Columbia Records

Her career was hurt by the lean times of the Great Depression.

And her life was tragically cut short. In September, 1937, she was a passenger in a car that collided with a truck, and she took the brunt of the crash. She lost her right arm below the elbow and was bleeding heavily. It took too long to get medical care and she died of her injures. She was only 43 years old.

Bessie Smith's funeral was held in Philadelphia.

Bessie Smith' funeral

She's buried at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania.

Bessie Smith grave

Her life was portrayed in an HBO movie…

Bessie movie poster

…with Queen Latifah in the lead role.