Editors' Notes Known as the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith was an enormously influential singer. Born in the late 1890s in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Smith started singing in vaudeville shows in 1912. In 1923, she signed with Columbia and made her first recordings. After a brief acting career, Smith faded from the spotlight for a few years, then returned with a handful of swing songs in the '30s. Smith was killed in a Mississippi car crash in 1937, but despite the brevity of her career, she went on inspiring decades of blues (and rock) artists; she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.