Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937) was an American blues singer widely renowned during the Jazz Age. Nicknamed the "Empress of the Blues", she 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 was a major influence on fellow blues singers, as well as jazz vocalists.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Smith was young when her parents died, and she and her siblings survived by performing on street corners. She began touring and performed in a group that included Ma Rainey, and then went out on her own. Her successful recording career with Columbia Records began in the 1920s, but her performing career was cut short by a car crash that killed her at the age of 43.
The 1900 census indicates that her family reported that Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 15, 1894. The 1910 census gives her age as 16, and a birth date of April 15, 1894 which appears on subsequent documents and was observed as her birthday by the Smith family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, but later interviews with Smith's family and contemporaries contain no mention of them against her siblings.
She was the daughter of Laura and William Smith, a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher (he was listed in the 1870 census as a "minister of the gospel," in Moulton, Lawrence County, Alabama). He died while his daughter was too young to remember him. By the time Bessie was nine, her mother and a brother had also died. Her older sister Viola took charge of caring for her siblings. Consequently, Bessie was unable to gain an education because her parents had died and her elder sister was taking care of her.
Due to her parents' death and her poverty, Bessie experienced a "wretched childhood." To earn money for their impoverished household, Bessie and her brother Andrew busked on the streets of Chattanooga. She sang and danced as he played the guitar. They often performed on "street corners for pennies," and their habitual location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets, in the heart of the city's African-American community.
In 1904, her oldest brother Clarence left home and joined a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. "If Bessie had been old enough, she would have gone with him," said Clarence's widow, Maud. "That's why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child."
In 1912, Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Stokes troupe and arranged an audition for his sister with the troupe managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher. Bessie was hired as a dancer rather than a vocalist since the company already included popular singer Ma Rainey. Contemporary accounts indicate that, while Ma Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, she likely helped her develop a stage presence. Smith eventually moved on to performing in chorus lines, making the "81" Theatre in Atlanta her home base. She also performed in shows on the black-owned Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) circuit and would become one of its major attractions.