American Vaudeville Museum

All material © 1998-2011 American Museum of Vaudeville, Inc.  Page 23

Bessie Smith

Empress of the Blues


She was the definitive Blues Queen, not because she lacked formidable competition from “Ma” Rainey, Ida Cox, Rosa Henderson and a dozen other greats, but because Bessie Smith had one of the great voices of the Twentieth Century and a sure sense of musicianship.

Bessie had a voice like a pipe organ but she sang with discipline, never going over the top either emotively or musically.  The recorded evidence displays a singer who chose often to confine herself to a range of a few whole notes.  But within that range she exercised every option from perfectly articulated half- and quarter-tones, slurs and phrasing.  

Off-stage her life was not as disciplined.  She was a figure much larger than life with emotions to fit.  Her willfulness and impetuosity led to her early death in an automobile accident.

Bessie Smith lives on through her recordings, which have not been out of print for half a century.  But in her stage act, with which she toured for decades in black vaudeville, Bessie also combined dancing and comedy, and was reportedly a fine pantomime.

American Vaudeville Museum