Today marks the birthdate of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, who was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 15th, 1894 according to the 1910 census. (Note that Smith's D.O.B. has been contested, but this one is the commonly agreed on date.)
Life was tough for the young Smith, who would go on to great success and become widely known as the “Empress of the Blues” (initially she was dubbed "Queen of the Blues").
After both Smith's father and mother died by the time she was only nine, she and her siblings teamed up to earn money to make ends meet in their impoverished household and assist her older sister, Viola, who had taken over the role as parent for her and her brothers and sisters.
At a young age music became a way to make money. Around the turn of the century, along with her brother Andrew, Bessie would do a song and dance routine on the streets of Chattanooga for spare change. Andrew played guitar while she sang and danced.
By age 18 Bessie Smith joined the Stokes troupe, a company that also included Ma Rainey, as a dancer initially. Smith's singing career would later be given a chance to blossom via stage productions and when Columbia Records began releasing her recordings in the early 1920's.
She would make over 150 recordings for the label before splitting from them in 1931. Smith soon beacame a major star and was the highest paid black performer in her heyday, when she became the biggest headliner on the black Theater Owners Booking Association circuit. Her stage shows, during which she was known to wear a variety of eye-catching costumes, were legendary. Smith's signing with Columbia Records in 1923 coincided with the label expanding its target audience to include blacks by forming a "race records" series and Smith's earlist hits for the label included "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Downhearted Blues."