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Dynamic Women of Early Jazz and Classic Blues, Part 1 of 2

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Bessie Smith at The Apollo Theater in the 1930s and star of Columbia Records.

Bessie Smith “Empress of the Blues”

The first record by Bessie Smith (1894-1937) was “Downhearted Blues” recorded in 1923.

It was a smash hit and she was able to raise her performance fees from a few dollars to upwards of $2,000 per week.  Six million of her records were sold during the next six years.

Smith began singing at the age of nine for spare change on the streets of her hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee.  She joined the touring tent-show of Ma Rainey as protégé to the charismatic older singer and absorbed the Classic Blues style — a raunchy, rowdy, stomping, sobbing, tough-hearted celebration of uncensored emotions and in-your-face sensuality.

Cutting about 200 records, Smith had great musicians for her studio sessions — remarkable African American bandleaders, pianists and instrumentalists like James P. Johnson and the young Louis Armstrong.  Her subtle vocal phrasing, tone quality,vibrato and rhythm created an eloquent body of work that is a definitive statement of the Classic Blues.

Wasted Life Blues (1929).mp3


Black Mountain Blues (1930).mp3

Bessie Smith was known for her toughness — a brawler who could quickly turn mean when drinking.  If provoked, she’d knock somebody down or shoot a pistol at her lover — male or female. She was a tough survivor who managed her own traveling tent show, employing a troupe of musicians, dancers, entertainers and stagehands.

Once, Ku Klux Klan thugs threatened to halt her show and knock down the tent.  After they intimidated her roustabouts, she took on the thugs herself and sent the bullies running with a stream of threats and invective.

Bessie mesmerized her audiences on record and in performance. Dressing in flamboyant style, her delivery was direct and intense. 
“She dominated a stage,” said guitarist Danny Barker “You didn’t turn your head . . . You just watched her.  She could bring about mass hypnotism.”

Bessie Clip A – I Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl (1931), Trombone Cholly (1927).mp3


Leaving an indelible impression on Jazz and Blues, Bessie Smith was without peer for expressing powerful emotions, despite her limited vocal range.  Her records spread the Classic Blues beyond the Southern United States and around the globe, her voice transcending language, context and geography.

There is some truth to the fanciful suggestion of early jazz scholars that Jazz developed when horn players began emulating the blues cadences, harmonies and bent notes of blues singers.  And there is plenty of truth in the rich literature celebrating Bessie as a source of racial pride, symbol of gender rebellion and fierce feminist icon.  Women’s Classic Blues was the vanguard of a new and personal musical art, creating masterpieces that move us nearly a century later.

Bessie Clip B – Backwater Blues (1927), Baby Doll (1926).mp3

Classic Blues singers Bessie, Clara and Mamie Smith.

More Classic Blues Singers Named “Smith”

By the end of the 1920s there were hundreds of Bessie Smith imitators.  Several sharing her surname.

Billed as “Queen of the Blues,” Mamie Smith (1883-1946) was a dancer, singer, pianist and actress who started in vaudeville at age 10.  She moved to Harlem in 1913 and was the first African American to make a Blues record.  In 1920 Mamie recorded “Crazy Blues” for the OKeh label.  Though musicians for the session were Caucasian, Mamie went on to many sessions backed by seminal black jazz instrumentalists.

The massive commercial success of “Crazy Blues,” selling 1,000,000 copies, paved the way for a new market.  Inventing a category called “race records” the record companies began producing, promoting and selling discs to African Americans.

Nonetheless, Mamie was an early crossover artist, succeeding with white audiences, possibly due to her successful radio career.  Today, “Crazy Blues” is on the National Registry of historic songs at the Library of Congress and in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Mamie Smith – Crazy Blues.mp3


Promoted as “Queen of the Moaners,” Clara Smith (1894-1935) recorded 122 Blues songs for Columbia Records with distinguished jazz musicians, and toured coast to coast. Laura Smith (1882-1932) and her Wildcats recorded some 35 songs for OKeh and Victor labels, from 1924-27.

Trixie Smith (1895-1943) began her career working in vaudeville and minstrel shows.  She recorded three dozen discs for the Black Swan, Paramount and Decca labels between 1921-25.

“Trixie’s Blues,” “Railroad Blues” and “The World’s Jazz Crazy and So am I” were big hits and she appeared in five films from 1932-38.  She was accompanied on disc by stellar early jazz musicians — cornetists Joe Smith and Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet (reeds) and bandleaders Fletcher Henderson (piano) and James P. Johnson (piano) as well as white jazzmen Miff Mole (trombone), Phil Napoleon (trumpet) and Frank Signorelli (piano).

Ruby Smith (1903-1977) was niece by marriage of Bessie Smith, who had discouraged her from going onstage.  But Ruby did anyway once her aunt passed away.  On record she was accompanied by James P. Johnson (piano) for some 21 sides recorded 1938-47 and enjoyed minor celebrity due to her former close proximity to Bessie.

Popularity of women’s Classic Blues fell off after the late 1920s as tastes shifted, the fortunes of the predominantly rural and African American audience steadily declined, and the record companies lost interest.  Yet, a sustaining niche supported specialty and sporadic recording activity until other blues forms gradually eclipsed Classic Blues in the late 1930s.


One Response to Dynamic Women of Early Jazz and Classic Blues, Part 1 of 2

  1. For more about women of Jazz see:

    Five JAZZ RHYTHM Radio Programs – Pioneering Women of Jazz

    Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey on JAZZ RHYTHM

    International Sweethearts – Documentary film

    More International Sweethearts on Youtube

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