Bessie Smith - (1894-1937):
Bessie Smith was born poor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her parents died when she was eight years old and she began singing to support her family at age seven. She sang on street corners with her brother accompanying her on guitar.
Bessie Smith went on to become one of the most successful Black performers of her day. Her album "Downhearted Blues," released in 1923, was the best selling blues record of its time. At the height of her career, she was making $2,000 a week. Quite a sum for those days.
Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey:
At age 17, Bessie Smith met Gertrude "Ma" Rainey
and went on the road with her traveling show. Ma Rainey became a mentor to Bessie Smith. There is some speculation that the two were also lovers, but little to back that up.
Bessie Smith and Jack Gee:
Bessie Smith was married to Jack Gee in 1923. Both Jack and Bessie had affairs with women and these affairs caused many fights between the two. There are accounts of Bessie firing a gun at Jack after learning of one of his affairs and of Jack threatening to kiss Bessie after finding her with a woman.
Bessie Smith ended her relationship with Jack Gee in 1929 after she found out he was having an affair with another singer.
Bessie Smith and Lillian Simpson:
Bessie Smith had affairs with various women through out her life. One that we know about is with Lillian Simpson. According to Bessie's niece Ruby, who traveled with her, Bessie Smith had an on and off affair with one of her chorus girls Lillian Simpson in 1926. At one point when Bessie spurned her, Lillian tried to kill herself and ended up in the hospital. The affair eventually ended when Lillian left the tour, afraid of Bessie's husband Jack finding out.
Bessie's Love of Women:
Bessie's husband Jack found out about her affairs with women when he caught her with a woman at a boarding house in Detroit. He threatened to kill her, but she managed to escape with her troupe and back to her train and out of town before he caught up with her.
Bessie Smith Blues Singer:
Bessie Smith performed for predominantly Black audiences. She played private parties, at speakeasies and "rent parties." She loved to tour and bought her own railroad car so she and her performers could travel in comfort from town to town, avoiding the Jim Crow laws of the time. Life on the road was tough, though. It often included heavy drinking and fights. Bessie and her husband Jack had a violent relationship, that eventually ended in 1929.
Bessie Smith died in September 1937, killed in a car crash on her way to a gig in rural Tennessee. She was 43 years old.
Sources: University of Virginia archives,College of Staten Island Library