Legendary blues singer of twenties and thirties. Despite a raucous, often tragic, personal life, Smith had a stunning recording and performance career which made her fabulously wealthy for a time. She died in a car accident, possibly because she was denied treatment by a whites-only hospital.
An American playwright whose second play, "The Death of Bessie Smith", opened in West Berlin in 1959. Albee went on to write plays such as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "A Delicate Balance", which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966.
Widely considered to be the one of the most important jazz musicians in American history. In a now historic 1925 Columbia recording session, Armstrong accompanied Bessie Smith on "St. Louis Blues."
A jazz saxophonist and clarinetist with whom Bessie played on tours and in the Columbia and Okeh studios. Considered a jazz pioneer, Bechet grew up in New Orleans and was part of the innovative and influential New Orleans school of jazz that included Louis Armstrong and King Oliver.
Jack Gee married Bessie Smith on June 7, 1923. Gee, a strong, handsome man, also had a hair-trigger temper, and frequently beat Smith. After marrying Bessie, Gee also managed her career to some extent.
Smith's adopted son, who was born to one of her chorus girls. He was mostly raised by Bessie's eldest sister, Viola.
Smith's producer during the mid-Thirties, who orchestrated sessions with her for Okeh Records. Hammond's music magazine, Downbeat, published the article "Did Bessie Smith Bleed to Death While Waiting For Medical Help?" which would shape the way many people viewed her death.
William Christopher Handy is often called the "Father of the Blues." As a cornetist, bandleader and composer, Handy is best known for synthesizing traditional blues with the quicker tempo and syncopation of ragtime and early jazz. Handy collaborated with Bessie Smith on "St. Louis Blues."
Nicknamed Lady Day, Holiday was one of the most influential jazz artists of the Twentieth Century. Holiday cited Bessie Smith as an early influence. She died of a drug overdose in 1959.
A contemporary of Bessie Smith's. With songs like "Downhearted Blues" and "If You Want to Keep Your Daddy Home," Hunter became one of the most popular blues artists of the Twenties.
One of the most popular of the 1960's rock icons, Janis Joplin's bluesy, throaty voice was a direct imitation of Bessie Smith, whom she sometimes said was reincarnated through her songs. Joplin fronted the money for Smith's headstone in 1970. She died of a drug overdose.
Smith's first husband. Very little is know about Earl Love, other than the fact that he came from a wealthy family and that he died shortly after he and Bessie were married.
A bandleader who turned Bessie down for a gig in his chorus because he thought her skin was too dark.
A Chicago bootlegger who was Smith's companion during the last two years before her death. Morgan was driving the car in which Smith suffered her fatal injuries on September 26, 1937.
Ma Rainey was a short, stout woman well known for her garish costumes and jewelry. Before Smith, Rainey was the most popular blues singer in the South, and she took Smith under her wing when Smith joined the Moses Stokes Traveling Show in 1912.
A blues singer with whom Jack Gee had an affair. Saunders became Smith's main rival, and Smith beat her quite badly in their only encounter after the affair.
A chorus girl in Smith's troupe and one of Ruby Walker's classmates, with whom Bessie had an intense love affair in 1927.
Bessie's older brother. He joined Moses Stokes Traveling Show in 1904 as a comedian and dancer and secured an audition for his sister in 1912.
Considered the first woman to record a blues song ("Crazy Blues" and "It's Right Here for You", both in 1920), Mamie Smith was the catalyst for the great blues boom of the 1920's. When Mamie Smith's first two blues records sold over a million copies in a less than a year, record companies began looking for blues talent all over the South.
Bessie Smith's eldest sister. Viola raised her five younger siblings when William and Laura Smith died. When Smith became a star, she bought Viola a home in Philadelphia, where Viola babysat Jack Gee, Jr..
A wealthy, well-connected music journalist in New York City during the 1920s. Vechten, who was white, took a particular interest in black musicians and writers. He was considered one of New York's leading music critics during the 1920s, and later became a novelist and a photographer.
The head of Columbia Records's "Race" division. Frank Walker signed Bessie Smith to a record contract in 1923.
Jack Gee's niece and Bessie Smith's best friend. Ruby was a slender, pretty woman who adored her aunt. When Gee and Smith divorced, Ruby Walker disappeared along with Jack Gee.
Ethel Waters was a pretty, slender woman whose light skin opened many doors for her that were not open to Bessie Smith. Waters performed in Broadway musicals throughout the Thirties, and in 1949 was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the film "Pinky." She died in 1977.
An influential early jazz composer and pianist, Williams was Smith's pianist for a number of years and was instrumental in securing her an audition with Columbia Records in 1923. Once Smith was signed, however, Williams tried to cheat her out of half of her recording fees.