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  • Rainey signed with Paramount Records

  • Between 1923 and 1928, she recorded 100 songs, sometimes accompanied by jazz

notables including Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, and Fletcher Henderson

Bessie Smith (1894 – 1937)

  • Born April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee

  • Orphaned by the age of 9 and was raised by her older sister Viola

  • The most popular and successful female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s

  • A strong influence on subsequent generations, including Billie Holiday, Mahalia

Jackson, Nina Simone, and Janis Joplin

Early Career

  • As a way of earning money for their impoverished household, Bessie and her brother Andrew began performing on the streets of Chattanooga as a duo, she singing and dancing, he accompanying on guitar

  • In 1912 she joined a traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes

  • She was hired as a dancer rather than a singer, because the company also included Ma Rainey

Branching Off

  • All contemporary accounts indicate that Ma Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, but she probably helped her develop a stage presence

  • Smith began forming her own act around 1913

  • By 1920 she had gained a good reputation in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard

Recording Career

  • Signed with Columbia Records in 1923

  • Scoring a big hit with her first release, a coupling of Gulf Coast Blues and Down Hearted Blues, Bessie's career blossomed

  • Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day

  • Columbia nicknamed her “Queen of the Blues,” but a PR-minded press soon elevated to “Empress”

  • She would make some 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the finest musicians of the day including Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, Charlie Green, and Fletcher Henderson

Film & Broadway

  • Smith’s career was cut short by the Great Depression (which all but put the recording industry out of business)

  • The advent of “talkies” spelled the end for vaudeville

  • In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway flop called Pansy, a musical in which, the top white critics agreed, she was the only asset

  • In 1929, Bessie Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a one-reeler based on W. C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues

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