The great Janis Joplin was obsessed with this woman, so much so that she believed she was her reincarnated spirit, and in most essential ways, she was. She was also paid tribute by the Band in a song on the Basement Tapes, and Edward Albee, in an early one-act play.
Born this day in 1894, Bessie Smith was the top blues singer of the 1920s, a colorful, hell-raising star, hard-drinking, omni-sexual and prone to brawls. She blazed a trail countless other entertainers — especially those of the rock and roll generation — would follow. Orphaned at age seven, she took to street singing in her native Chattanooga. In 1912 she joined a tent show that featured Ma Rainey, who was to become her mentor. She continued to work minstrel shows and black vaudeville for the next decade. In 1923 she signed with Columbia Records, and her career exploded. The twenties were her halcyon days; record sales and personal appearances kept her rich and busy. By the mid 30s styles were changing and she was less in favor. She died in a car crash in 1937.
To learn more about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.