If there is one person who can rightfully claim to be the TRUE pioneer of rock n' roll, it's Bessie Smith.
She had attitude, she had an opinion and she had one hell of a voice. Her blues recordings are not only legendary, they've set the standard for all great blues singers to come. And her influence has spread far beyond the blues. Janis Joplin idolized her. So have contemporary stars like Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi. And for good reason - she opened the door for all strong, independent people in blues, pop, country R&B and rock music to come. And her influence reverberates to this day
But tragically, Bessie Smith never got the appreciation she really deserved in her life. In fact, in 1937 when she was in a horrific auto accident that claimed her life, her right arm was nearly severed and needed to be amputated. She died from blood loss. Bessie Smith's Wikipedia entry claims she did not die as a result of not being able to find a "coloured" hospital in time. I have a hard time believing that personally, as time was of the essence in such a life threatening injury. A closer "white" hospital could have saved her (and contrary to the "separate but equal" rule of Jim Crow, black hospitals were also grossly underfunded, under equipped and understaffed compared to the white hospitals - especially in the South.)
And to add to this injustice, she was buried in an unmarked grave and forgotten for decades until Janis Joplin personally bought a proper headstone.