Women of the Blues: Bessie Smith
The Blues genre did not only include black men. Black Women significantly contributed to the sound of the blues. Female blues singers used their powerful voices as a way to express themselves and relate their life experiences with other women who were in the same boat; this was a way for women to connect. Moreover, the female blues singers shared their stories and emotions through their music. More specifically, Bessie Smith was one of the first blues women whose sound left an imprint on the genre.
Bessie Smith is a legend. She was one of the leading voices in Blues music during the 1920s. Furthermore, she earned $2,00 a week performing some of her major hits such as “Downhearted Blues” and “St. Louis Blues.” Therefore, she was the highest paid black female artist during the rise of the blues. In addition, her ability to tell a story about black women’s lives regarding sexism, domestic abuse, racism, and more through blues, led to her success because other black women could relate. As black women listened, they were inspired by Bessie Smith to tell their own stories. Alongside the themes of her music, Bessie used her unique skills in the industry. She incorporated her acting and comedic skills to draw in the attention of her listeners.
The Rise of “Empress of the Blues”
Bessie Smith received the nickname of “Empress of the Blues” during her advancements in music. She was the most popular female blue singer during the 1920s and 1930s. However, how did she earn this title? Bessie Smith was born on April 15th, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Growing up, she was a street singer accompanied by her guitar playing brothers. In 1912, Smith performed as a dancer in the Moses Stokes minstrel shows. Later, she performed at numerous theaters where blues singer Ma Rainey also performed.
In 1923, Smith was discovered by a representative from Columbia Records, whom she signed her first contract with and began making song recordings. Her version of “Downtown Blues” was her first track, and it was widely popular. This track advanced her into the Blues spotlight. Smith sold a reported 780,000 copies of it in the same year it came out, which is amazing because a variety of different artists had their own versions out but did not do as well. Moreover, as Bessie recorded more songs, she performed them as well, which led to the rise of her fame. Bessie was a killer onstage. She grabbed the audience’s attention not because she was new and different, but rather she was powerfully relatable. She sang about the kind of trouble that most people were familiar with, and her shouts identified a depth of feeling that most people have felt. Overall, Smith’s powerful voice made her into a successful artist. She toured the country spreading the sound of the Blues.
Bessie accomplished a lot during her lifetime. As mentioned before, her song “Downhearted Blues,” alongside “Gulf Coast Blues,” sold over 750,000 records in the first year of its release. Following, she became the headliner at a theater named Theatre Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.). She was the theaters’ most famous artist because many people came to see her perform. Moreover, Smith was booked and busy; she performed at other places too. Therefore, this made her the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. Furthermore, since her death, Bessie has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.
Though Bessie Smith passed, she is still loved and remembered by the music industry and society. Her braveness allowed her to share her life stories through Blues with everyone. She forced her voice to be heard and left an impact on society.
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