Born and raised in
Georgia, Smith came from a middle-class background.
 Various years are given for her birth including 1885,
 and 1895.
 She attended
Selma University, in Alabama, before moving to
New York City at the age of twenty around 1915.
 Soon after, she began working in a number of different cafés and theaters in Harlem and Philadelphia.
She began her career as a vaudeville and minstrel entertainer who performed as a comedian, dancer, actress, and singer in traveling shows. Between 1916 and the early 1920s, she worked in minstrel shows and toured as a featured singer. She performed on Broadway using the name Bessie Lee and recorded for
 She also worked on the
Theater Owners Bookers Association vaudeville circuit before making her first recordings for
Black Swan Records in 1922,
 among which was "My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)" (1922),
 written by J. Berni Barbour, of historical interest as the first secular recording to use the phrase
rock and roll.
record inspired various lyrical elaborations, such as "Rock That Thing" by
Lil Johnson and "Rock Me Mama" by
Also in 1922, billed as the "southern nightingale," Smith won first place and a silver cup in a blues singing contest in which she sang her own composition, "Trixie's Blues",
 competing against
Alice Leslie Carter,
Daisy Martin and
Lucille Hegamin, at the Inter-Manhattan Casino in New York, sponsored by the dancer
 She is best remembered for "Railroad Blues" (1925),
 which features one of her most inspired vocal performances on record, and "The World Is Jazz Crazy and So Am I" (1925).
Louis Armstrong played the cornet on both songs.
Smith was a polished performer, and her records include several outstanding examples of the blues, on which she is accompanied by artists such as
James P. Johnson, and
 She recorded with
Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra for
Paramount Records in 1924 and 1925. By the late 1930s her formerly girlish voice became more full-bodied, and her performance style more direct and sexual. Later rhythm-and-blues and soul singers would adopt this approach.
As her career as a blues singer waned, she sustained herself mostly by performing in cabaret revues and starring in musical revues such as New York Revue (1928) and Next Door Neighbors (1928) at the
Lincoln Theater in
 She also appeared in
Mae West's short-lived 1931 Broadway show, The Constant Sinner. Two years later, Smith was elevated to the stage of the Theatre Guild for its production of Louisiana.
She appeared in five
movies: Birthright (1938),
God's Step Children (1938), Swing! (1938), Drums o' Voodoo (1934), and
The Black King (1932). Two of these films were
 She appeared at the concert
From Spirituals to Swing, produced by
John H. Hammond, in 1938. She recorded seven titles in 1938 and 1939. Most of her later recordings were with
Sidney Bechet for
Decca Records in 1938. In 1939 she cut "No Good Man" with a band including
Red Allen and
Known in later life as Trixie Muse, she died in New York in 1943,
 after a brief illness, at the age of 48.