Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894. One of seven children, Smith grew up in a one-room shack in one of the poorest quarters of Chattanooga, and by the age of nine had lost both her parents, Smith and her brother made extra money by singing for spare change on street corners. In 1904, Smith's older brother Clarence Smith joined Moses Stokes' Traveling Show as a dancer and comedian and, in 1912, convinced the managers to give his talented sister an audition. At the age of seventeen, Bessie Smith joined the vaudeville circuit.
From 1912 to 1920, Smith worked various tent shows and revues as a singer and dancer. During this time, Ma Rainey, then the best-known of the female blues singers, took Smith under her wing and showed her the ropes. Rainey was a hard- living, gaudy woman who, although married, was openly homosexual. She treated Smith like her own daughter. It was during this time that Smith crafted her incomparable style, a full-bodied, throaty voice and an innovative style of phrasing that would influence many jazz artists of the 1940s, including Billie Holiday.
After a brief marriage which left her a widow, Smith met Jack Gee. After a whirlwind courtship, in which Smith nursed Gee back to health after he was shot on their first date, Jack Gee and Bessie Smith were married on June 7, 1923. Two months prior, Smith had cut her first record with Columbia Records, and, as she was getting married, "Downhearted Blues" was released. It was a hit, selling 780,000 copies in six months–the best-selling blues record to date. Between 1923 and 1931, Smith recorded 160 songs for Columbia. In addition to recording blues, Smith traveled around the American South with her own show, which was wildly popular. Her life on the road was a rough one, full of heavy drinking, casual sex, and frequent fistfights. Jack Gee found his wife's lifestyle hard to live with, and they began to fight fiercely, frequently beating each other bloody. During this time, Bessie adopted the six-year-old son of one of her former chorus girls and named him Jack Gee, Jr..
The year 1929 changed everything: the stock market crashed, bringing about a painful end to the Roaring Twenties; Smith's marriage to Gee ended; and Columbia Records ended its nine-year contract with her. As the Great Depression darkened all prospects, Smith found money harder and harder to come by. She continued to tour and, in addition to her many lesbian affairs, began a relationship with a Chicago bootlegger named Richard Morgan. In September 1937, Bessie had just begun an engagement with another traveling revue and was on her way to a show in Memphis when she was killed in a car accident in rural Tennessee. The rumors surrounding her death still persist; one version claims Bessie bled to death because Jim Crow Laws in the South prohibited a white hospital from accepting a black patient, and Smith was turned away. All that is known for sure is that Bessie Smith died on September 26th, 1937 at G.T. Thomas Hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi. She was forty-three years old.
Few blues artists have had the same kind of long-standing influence as Bessie Smith. Musicians like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra and Janis Joplin have all said that Smith's music informs their own, and her records continue to sell in great numbers today.