Wednesday 17 April 2024

Remembering Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937)

Singer Bessie Smith's recording career lasted only 10 years, but during that time she created a body of work that helped shape the sound of the 20th century. Her first single, "Downhearted Blues" — written by two women, pianist Lovie Austin and blues singer Alberta Hunter — was a major hit in 1923, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and helping her label, Columbia Records, out of a financial slump. With her subsequent recordings, Smith was one of the artists who propelled the fledgling "race records" market of music targeted to black audiences that had launched a few years earlier in 1920 with Mamie Smith's hit "Crazy Blues." Through the rest of the 1920s, Bessie Smith became one of the earliest stars of recorded music and a leading figure of what came to be called classic blues (a genre dominated by African American women). She was the highest-paid African American artist working in music and the first African American superstar. Bessie Smith's sound and her attitude, rooted in a distant era, are with us in the 21st century.

Her onstage costumes of gowns, wigs, plumes and elaborate headdresses communicated glamour and wealth, and she carried herself with a regal bearing that fit her nickname. But Smith's singing voice, of course, is the element that remains, the element that made her a legend. When Smith rendered a song she tapped into her experiences of the hardships of poverty, racism, sexism and, above all, the ups and downs of love. This gave her a down-to-earth quality that made it easy for her black, working-class audience to connect with her. Whether she was singing the "Empty Bed Blues (Parts 1 and 2)" (1928), a ribald and humorous meditation on the sexual prowess of a lover, or expressing the terrifying experience of a flood in "Backwater Blues" (1927), Smith's authoritative delivery conveyed an authenticity that suggested she had actually lived through the things she sang about. An excellent storyteller, she made prodigious use of her skills as vocalist, actress and comedian to develop convincing and compelling performances, live and on record. 

By Maureen Mahon / NPR

Photo: Getty Images

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