Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 15, 1894, one of seven children born to William and Laura Smith. William, who was a Baptist Preacher, died when his daughter Bessie was just an infant. By the time Bessie was nine, her mother and two brothers had also died. The oldest Smith daughter, Viola, took command of the household, raising five children–Bessie, Tinnie, Lulu, Andrew and Clarence Smith–as well as her own daughter. Viola moved the family out of their one-room cabin in the poor African-American section of town and into a tenement apartment in Chattanooga's Tannery Flats. Viola took in laundry to make ends meet, boiling clothes in huge vats on an outdoor coal stove. The young Bessie Smith and her brother Andrew earned money by singing on Chattanooga street corners for nickels and dimes. Passersby were often flabbergasted by the booming, full voice coming out of the little girl's mouth. Smith also sang in traveling choirs, and by the time she was nine, she could command as much as eight dollars for a single appearance.

In 1904, Clarence Smith joined the Moses Stokes' Traveling Show–a touring minstrel and vaudeville show–as a comedian and dancer. In 1912, when Bessie Smith was seventeen, Clarence asked the show's managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to allow his sister to audition. They agreed, and eventually hired her as a dancer. By this time, Bessie Smith had grown up to become a commanding presence. She was nearly six feet tall and weighed close to two hundred pounds. Although she began her career as a dancer, she was soon singing in the chorus, and eventually became a featured singer.

While traveling with the Moses Stokes Traveling Show, Smith met Ma Rainey, one of the most famous blues singers at that time. Ma Rainey was a stout and gaudy woman who favored ornate costume jewelry and outrageous outfits. Rainey's most famous accessory was a necklace made out of gold coins, and she even wore the necklace to bed for fear it would be stolen. Although Rainey was married, she was also a lesbian, an occurrence that was not uncommon among female blues singers of the time: both Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith both would later have affairs with women. Ma Rainey's vocal style was similar to Bessie Simth's–full-throated, with sophisticated phrases–but Smith's style was already firmly established by the time she met Rainey. Rainey's influence on Smith was more personal than stylistic, and Bessie became almost a daughter to Ma Rainey.

Blues music initially found much of its rhythm and chord progressions in the spirituals and "Negro" work songs from the days of slavery. After the Civil War, however, blues songs gained a more sophisticated structure, most often a twelve-bar form. Smith's interpretations of her favorite blues songs were innovative, not only because of her great projection, but also because she sang differently from other singers, bridging the gaps between major and minor notes with a kind of blue half-note.

From 1912 to 1920, Smith worked at various tent shows. In 1914, Smith signed on as a singer and dancer in Park's Big Revue at the Dixie Theater in Atlanta. In 1914, WWI had begun. America had tried to stay neutral in the European conflict, even after the Germans torpedoed and sank the British ocean liner Lusitania. Finally, on April 6, 1917, the United States entered WWI.

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