@ National Portrait Gallery
DescriptionLegendary blues singer Bessie Smith first made a name for herself performing in tent shows and vaudeville theaters, where audiences warmed to her powerful, earthy contralto. Smith's big break came in 1923, when she signed with Columbia and released her debut recording, "Down Hearted Blues." The phenomenal success of that record and those that followed established Smith as the undisputed "Empress of the Blues." Able to command as much as $2,000 a week at the height of her fame, Smith played to packed houses and recorded with the top jazz musicians of the day. Although her career suffered a sharp decline with the onset of the Depression and the collapse of the recording industry, Smith continued to perform until an automobile accident claimed her life in 1937. Her musical legacy has influenced countless performers, from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin.
Gelatin Silver Print
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution