Bessie Smith was born around 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. All that is known of her early years is that she grew up in poverty. Singing in the streets for change at the age of ten, she joined a travelling show featuring "Ma" Rainey, who taught her a lot. She played "on the road" for eleven years before recording her first song in 1923. That record sold 780,000 copies, but only made her $125.
Dubbed "The Empress of the Blues," her singing embodied the Blues feeling while her songs, drawing from her sordid lifestyle, rang true with rural and urban audiences alike. Bessie's music is one of the roots of the Blues, and there are many compilations of her songs available on CD, including two 2-CD compilations from Columbia's Legacy series.
Photo by Edward Elcha, 1923.