10 facts about Bessie Smith and Chattanooga

Bessie Smith. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Authored By James Harrison

Today would have been-by most accounts-Bessie Smith’s 119th birthday. 

The “Empress of the Blues” was the daughter of migrant parents who moved to Chattanooga in the late 1800s to take advantage of the city’s resources and growing black community. By the time she died in a car accident at the age of 42, she was regarded as the greatest female blues singer of the era. 

Smith was born on 25 W. Hill St. in Blue Goose Hollow, a black community located near the modern-day intersection of M.L. King Boulevard and Riverfront Parkway. 

Smith began her career singing on street corners of downtown Chattanooga. 

She developed her talent as a part of the East Ninth Street scene, or the Big Nine, where brass bands and street performers would often congregate. East Ninth Street is now M.L. King Boulevard.

She left Chattanooga in 1912 to join a traveling minstrel and vaudeville show with Ma Rainey. 


Bessie Smith’s “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” (1923) 

Her recording debut, “Downhearted Blues,” sold 750,000 copies in 1923. 

Before the Great Depression, she was the highest-paid black entertainer in the world, collecting as much as $2,000 per week to sing her songs. 

-She recorded with blues greats such as Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman.

She made it in an era when her race, gender and demographic should have deemed it impossible.  

She was on the verge of a comeback when she was killed in a car crash in 1937. 

Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, the child of an employee of Bessie’s, paid for her proper tombstone. 

All facts are taken from the website of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center and Michelle R. Scott’s book “Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South.” The book is available at The Public Library.