Bessie Smith, called Empress of the Blues, was the most popular female blues singer of the 1020’s and 1930’s. Born in 1892 , though the 1910 Census has her official date as 1894.
Her father was a part-time preacher, but died early in her life. By the time Bessie was nine, her mother and brother had also died, and her older sister Viola became caregiver to Bessie and her other siblings. In order to earn money for the household, Bessie and her brother Andrew began busking on the streets of Chattanooga.
She became a dancer, and performed on the Black-owned Theater Owners Booking Association, which, in 1923, landed her a recording contract with Columbia Records. She became the highest-paid Black entertainer, touring in her own custom-built railroad car with as many as 40 troupers.
Her first record was “Downhearted Blues.” In 1923, she was to Columbia Records by Frank Walker, a talent agent. She made 160 recordings, often accompanied by notable artists, like Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins. Billie Holiday credits Bessie as being a major influence on her career.