Born in 1894 in Tennessee, a poverty-stricken Bessie sang for nickels on street corners at age nine. In 1923, she did an about-face with her first hit recording, "Downhearted Blues."

Bessie connected to black and white audiences alike, belting out songs of yearning, love and loss. Bolstering her popularity was her image as a sassy, self-assured black woman.

But combining that temperament with a thirst for moonshine made for a stormy personal life. When beset with anger, a brawl often ensued. Her opportunistic second husband, Jack Gee, was physically abusive – especially over her affairs with women.

Bessie's career slumped after the crash of '29. Ironically, her final blow came in 1937 in a car crash on a lonely southern highway.

This Rainbow Minute was read by Giz Bowe.

“The Rainbow Minute” is produced by Judd Proctor and Brian Burns and can be heard every weekday at 3:59am, 7:59am, 9:59am, 12:29pm and 2:59pm on WRIR – 97.3fm in Richmond, Virginia, and webcast at It’s also heard internationally on over 200 stations.