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Bessie Smith (1894 - 1937)

Born 15 April 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith never knew her father (who died while she was very young), and her mother passed away when she was ten. Raised by an older sister and growing up poor, she first performed at an amateur contest when she was ten, often raising money for the family by singing in the streets with her brother backing her on guitar. In 1912 when Smith was eighteen, she joined the Moses Stokes troupe as a dancer. The company’s vocalist was Ma Rainey, who is considered the first female blues singer and was an inspiration to Smith. Within a year or two, Smith was singing at Atlanta’s “81” Theatre and quickly becoming a popular attraction. She worked regularly on the road with a variety of companies and gained a strong reputation throughout the South for her powerful voice and highly expressive way of singing the blues. By 1920 she was heading her own show.

The blues craze began in 1920 when Mamie Smith had a major bestseller in “Crazy Blues”. Suddenly the record labels, which had previously excluded black artists from the recording studios, went out of their way to document scores of female blues singers in hopes of duplicating Mamie Smith’s success. Among the many discoveries were Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox and Ma Rainey, but none made a greater impact than Bessie Smith.




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