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Bessie Smith owned one of the most powerful voices in music, earning her the nickname “Empress of the Blues.” Smith was born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

As a young girl, Smith and her brother Andrew performed in the streets of Chattanooga to earn money for the family. She later joined her older brother Clarence and the Moses Stokes troupe as a dancer before heading to the Rabbit Foot Minstrels of which singer Ma Rainey was a member. Rainey became a mentor to Smith, although some accounts say she didn’t train her on being a vocalist but instead how to command a stage.

Smith broke out on her own as a singer and performer with Atlanta as her home base. She signed a contract with Columbia Records in 1923 and became the highest-paid performer of her day with songs like “Downhearted Blues.” So big was Smith as an artist that she traveled about the country in a customized railroad car.

By the end of the ‘20s, Smith’s popularity began to wane but she was amassing a comeback in the mid-thirties but tragedy struck. On September 26, 1937, Smith died from injuries suffered in an automobile accident outside of Clarksdale, Miss. She was 43.

In 2002, the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress placed Smith’s “Downhearted Blues” into the National Recording Registry.

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