The empress of blues Bessie Smith
For a legend such as the empress of the blues, Bessie Smith, two things were certain: one was a tumultuous life despite her magnificent gift; and the other was that while trying to pass off as straight, she couldn’t escape her lesbian side.
Next to her role as a game-changing singer, she was known for her many affairs with other women.
Bessie Smith, greatest singer of her era
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1892, Bessie Smith had lost both her parents by the time she was nine years old.
For money, she and her brother, Andrew, would sing on the streets of Chattanooga. She would sing and dance and he would accompany her on the guitar.
Her first break into show business was through her brother Clarence, who was part of a travelling troupe. She was first hired as a dancer, eventually rising to the rank of chorus line and then a singer.
This was where she met another blues singer, Ma Rainey. The relationship between the two was sketchy, both sexually and professionally. Some said Rainey was Smith’s first woman lover. Others insisted it was simply mentor-mentee.
Whatever the case, by the 1920s, Smith’s records were selling well and forging her reputation as the greatest singer of her era.
The life and loves of Bessie Smith
In 1923, Smith married a security guard named Jack Gee. It was also at this time her first album was released.
The marriage, which lasted nine years, was stormy. They would love, they would fight, they would get drunk, they would get violent with each other, they would kiss and make up, and then they would cheat on each other.
Smith was then known to have lesbian affairs throughout their marriage, the most intense of which was with Lillian Simpson. When Smith got angry with her and ignored her for days, the poor girl– who was part of her chorus– would attempt to kill herself.
At one point, Smith told Simpson: “I got 12 women on this show and I can have one every night if I want it.”
After Simpson, there were many other women, some which her husband would even catch her with.
Bessie Smith’s death and her legacy
Smith died in a car accident on the way to a gig while trying to revive her career. She was 43.
In 2015, an HBO biopic Bessie was produced, starring Queen Latifah as the legendary singer whose singing voice remains with us today
It’s a good reminder when once there was an empress of blues named Bessie Smith.