Known as Empress of the Blues in the 1920s, Bessie Smith was a superstar in her time. Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., to a family of seven children, Smith started off as a street singer. In 1912 she began her career as a vaudeville dancer, eventually landing in a group called the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. It was there that she met her mentor, blues legend Ma Rainey. In 1923 Smith signed a contract with Columbia Records where she put out a string of hits including “Downhearted Blues” a signature recording that sold an estimated 800,000 copies. Smith, the highest-paid black performer of her time, toured regularly and even bought a custom railroad car so she and her band could travel in style. 

Queen Latifah will star in “Bessie” an HBO biopic of the legendary singer. Set in the Jazz Age, the film follows Smith through her struggles as a blues singer and into a stardom rare for black artists. Latifah will play Smith, who was also known for her bisexuality. The film also features Mo’Nique and Michael Kenneth Williams. 

“Bessie” premieres on May 16.