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Bessie Gee (Smith)

Also Known As: "Empress of the Blues"
Birthplace: Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Tennessee, United States
Death: September 26, 1937 (43)
Clarksdale, Coahoma County, Mississippi, United States (Car accident)
Place of Burial: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of William Smith and Laura Smith
Wife of Earl Love and Jack Gee
Partner of Richard K. Morgan
Mother of Jack Gee, Jr.
Sister of Bud Smith; Andrew Smith; Viola Smith; Willie Smith; Tennie Smith and 2 others

Occupation: Singer, Actress
Managed by: Kenneth Kwame Welsh, (C)
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937) was an American blues singer.

Sometimes referred to as The Empress of the Blues, Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era and, along with Louis Armstrong, a major influence on subsequent jazz vocalists.

By 1923, when she began her recording career, Smith had taken up residence in Philadelphia. There she met and fell in love with Jack Gee, a security guard whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first record was released. During the marriage—a stormy one, with infidelity on both sides—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 railroad car. 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, Bessie Smith ended the relationship, although neither of them sought a divorce.

Smith eventually found a common-law husband in an old friend, Richard Morgan, who was Lionel Hampton's uncle and the antithesis of her husband. She stayed with him until her death.


Smith's career was cut short by a combination of the Great Depression (which all but put the recording industry out of business) and the advent of "talkies", which spelled the end for vaudeville. She never stopped performing, however. While the days of elaborate vaudeville shows were over, Smith continued touring and occasionally singing in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway flop called Pansy, a musical in which top critics said she was the only asset.


In 1929, Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a two-reeler titled 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, she sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, the Hall Johnson Choir, pianist James P. Johnson and a string section — a musical environment radically different from any found on her recordings.

See also

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Bessie Smith's Timeline

April 15, 1894
Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Tennessee, United States
November 4, 1919
Age 25
September 26, 1937
Age 43
Clarksdale, Coahoma County, Mississippi, United States


he myth perpetuated by the play was largely accepted as fact until convincing evidence to the contrary appeared in the original 1972 edition of Bessie, a biography of the singer. The author Chris Albertson interviewed the white surgeon, Doctor Hugh Smith, who came upon the wreck. The doctor and his friend Henry Broughton were on the way to a fishing trip.

What is known about the incident is that Morgan flagged down Dr.Smith and Broughton, and asked for help. Dr. Smith examined Smith using the headlights of his car. Her right arm was torn loose at the elbow and the bones in the elbow were shattered. Her nerves were intact and the artery in her arm was still intact. A hemorrhage to Smith’s arm did not cause her death. She did not need a tourniquet, so Dr. Smith covered the wound with a handkerchief. However, Smith had severe internal injuries to her chest and abdomen. She was semi-conscious and was having trouble breathing.

Dr. Smith and Broughton were helping Smith when a car travelling at high speed, carrying a white man and a woman crashed into Dr. Smith’s car. The man, who was driving, sustained injuries to his chest from the steering wheel. Two ambulances arrived at the scene within three or four minutes of each other.The first one was called by the truck driver, who left the scene. The second one was called by Broughton, who walked to a nearby house.

Smith was taken by the first ambulance to arrive and was promptly driven directly to a black hospital. In 1937, an ambulance driver would not even think of taking a black patient to a white hospital. She was most likely in shock, close to death and unconscious, before reaching the hospital. By the time she arrived at the hospital, it was around 11 am. Smith’s arm was amputated and she was pronounced dead at 11:30 am.

October 4, 1937
Age 43
Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, United States


Smith was buried near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 4, 1937. Some 7,000 mourners attended her funeral. There is no record of Smith’s exact birth date, but she was about 43 years old.

In the summer of 1970, shortly before her own death from a heroin overdose, the young blues singer Janis Joplin had a headstone made for Smith’s unmarked grave. It reads, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”

From Jackie Kay. Bessie Smith. (Bath, UK: Absolute Press, 1997

in August 1970 Juanita Greene, President of the North Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP and Janis Joplin purchased a gravestone for Smith that read "The Greatest Blues Singer In The World Will Never Stop Singing." It had been Greene's mother who had served as a housekeeper for Smith.