April 15th: Leonhard Euler & Bessie Smith

Today, the Google Doodle plays tribute to famed mathematician Leonhard Euler, while over here at Speaking Up, we’ll shift our attention to the arts world. Born on April 15th, 1894, Bessie Smith became known as “The Empress of the Blues” during her career as a singer and performer.

Smith got her start as a busker in Chattanooga, Tennessee; her parents died when she and her siblings were young, so singing and dancing for passersby was a way for the family to earn some money. When she was 18, Bessie was hired by a traveling troupe of performers, allowing her to tour the country while she worked with new artists and developed her stage presence.

Portrait of Bessie Smith taken in 1936 by Carl Van Vechten.

Portrait of Bessie Smith taken in 1936 by Carl Van Vechten.

By the 1920s, the recording market for blues was on the rise, and Smith was hired by Columbia Records, becoming a headlining act. Her popularity led to her becoming the highest-paid African American entertainer at the time, and she eventually made over 150 recordings, with her powerful voice earning her the nickname “Empress of the Blues.” Bessie Smith recorded with some of the most important jazz musicians of the day, including Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman.

Her career, along with the industry, suffered during and after the Great Depression; Smith was staging a comeback in the late 1930s when she was killed in a car accident. Her grave went unmarked for years until a marker was purchased for her in 1970 by Janis Joplin, who credited Smith for influencing her music and career.

Smith’s work has been honored with many awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, along with inductions into the Rock and Roll, Big Band and Jazz, and Blues Halls of Fame. Three of her recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and another was honored as a Song of the Century by the National Endowment for the Arts. This most famous single, “Downhearted Blues,” is captured in the video below, and is considered one of the songs that shaped rock and pop music in the 20th century.

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