Bessie Smith (1894 - 1937)
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Smith made her stage debut at the age of nine. As a teenager, she appeared with Gertrude ("Ma") Rainey's minstrel show on the black vaudeville circuit. Influenced by Rainey, she developed her own unique art from a blend of classical blues, country blues, and jazz singing to packed houses wherever she performed and working with every great jazz musician of her day. Her music reflected the oppression she experienced as a woman, as a black, and as a victim of alcohol and hard times. At one time, she was considered Columbia Records' most valuable artist, but her career declined dramatically during the early Depression years. After struggling to make a comeback, she died in a tragic automobile accident.