The Early Women of The Blues
The early women of the blues such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Mamie Smith, shaped the style known today as blues. During the 1920’s and 30’s, the blues movement in America was sweeping the nation. And make no mistake, the women were running it. These women sang of struggles and despair and were some of the first women to take over an industry dominated by men.
Mamie Smith is considered to be the first to record a blues track, with her hit, “Crazy Blues.” In the 1910’s, Mamie Smith was starring in the Lincoln Center’s Made in Harlem. Perry Bedford was the musical revue and composer of “Crazy Blues.” Wanting to get his music recorded, Bedford brought Smith and a band of African American musicians to Okeh Studios in New York and recorded a number of singles. One of which included, “Crazy Blues,” which some consider to be the first blues track. The song was a huge success and sold over 75,000 copies in the first month of it’s release. The success of “Crazy Blues,” and the sudden fame and wealth of Mamie Smith marks the emergence of the female voice in the music industry. As she would go on to pave the way for stars like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.
Bessie Smith is coined the “Empress of the Blues and is considered one of the first musical artists to include the blues in her stage act. Her career began around 1913 when she toured a show with Ma Rainey, who had become a household name by then. She spent the next couple of years traveling and singing in the South, until she settled down in 1920 in Pennsylvania. It was in Pennsylvania where she was discovered by Clarence Williams, a representative from Columbia Records. In 1923, Smith recorded a number of records. Including, “Down-Hearted Blues,” which sold over 2 million copies. Her amazing voice and confident persona made Smith a force to be reckoned with during the early blues period. Unfortunately, Smith died from a car accident and her death marked the end of a phenomenal period for blues music.
Ma Rainey, otherwise known as the “Mother of the Blues,” is considered to be the first big name in blues. Rainey is known for her raw, deep setting voice. She set the template for future blues artists. Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridget and married Will “Pa” Rainey in 1904. The two had an act together called “Ma and Pa Rainey” and toured with minstrels and vaudevilles. After the two separated, Ma began her own career as a traveling musician with her act called “Madame Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Set.” In 1923, Rainey signed a recording contract with Paramount Records. She recorded almost 100 records and is noted as one of the first blues artists to do so. Some of her most notable songs include, “Oh Papa Blues,” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which inspired a playwright written by August Wilson and was recently adapted into a film. Rainey died in 1939 from a heart disease but did not die without inspiring the platform for many other female singers for decades to come.
The early women of the blues were extremely influential in the genre, the music industry, and for future female artists. Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey are only three of a group of renowned artists during the early 1920s-1930s. These women influenced generations of women. Including the international star, Billie Holiday, who was coined as “The First Lady of the Blues.” Holiday said she was heavily influenced by Bessie Smith and she is known for her raspy tambor, her swing style, and her influence on jazz music. These women paved the way for generations of stars and knocked down the door for African American, women artists.