Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the age of 14 she had become the protégé of the blues singer Ma Rainey and began performing in minstrel shows, cabarets, and vaudeville. Her tours and recordings during the 1920s brought blues to a wide audience and made her the best-known black artist of her day — the “Empress of the Blues.” Her vocal style, which has been immortalized in 160 recorded selections, is characterized by expressive alterations of melody and rhythm, slurred intonation, blue-note inflections, and raspy, growling tone-color effects. She performed with many of the jazz greats, including Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and James P. Johnson. Her commercial popularity declined along with that of the blues in the early 1930s. She died following a car accident near Clarksdale, Mississippi.