Black blues singers emerged in the early twentieth century as popular and powerful celebrities. They were urban, secular singers who turned their rich experiences into social lessons for their audiences. They were usually bolder than white women singers. Performing before exclusively black audiences, they discussed sexual disappointments and the failures of love with great candor. Ida Cox, the "Uncrowned Queen of the Blues," and Ma Rainey, the "Mother of the Blues," established the style that would be used, with spectacular success, by Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues."
Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and grew up in poverty. Untrained, she just began singing and at the age of 19, joined a traveling tent show to get out of Chattanooga. 2 She wrote most of the lyrics of her songs and eventually formed her own musical troupe. In 1923 she made her first recording for Columbia Records, "Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do." The double meaning of the words and the silky voice of the singer made the record a big hit. Her second record, "Down Hearted Blues," sold 780,000 copies in less than six months. Although the song was ostensibly a lament, she asserted that she had control of her world. Another hit song was called "You Gotta Give Me Some."
The blues sung by Bessie Smith could be sad or self-mocking, selfindulgent or assertive. Smith was a large woman, five feet nine inches tall and weighing over 200 pounds, but she moved gracefully across a stage. She was known to be hard drinking, frequently unhappy over her failed love affairs, and sometimes violent. In fact, her personal life, known to her fans, was often the source for her new songs. Music historian Donald Bogle noted that Smith"hit anybody who annoyed her or messed with her man or woman." 3 In the mid-1920s, at the height of her career, she earned $2,500 a week touring the black nightclubs of the South. From 1923 to 1929, her records sold between 5 and 10 million copies. Smith's interpretation of lyrics was dramatically effective, and the sound of her voice, smooth, melodic, and strong, made her a very popular entertainer.
A Time magazine writer later described Bessie Smith's interpretation of the blues as "a womanly wail that somehow remained proud of its woe." 4 The word "blues" appeared in the title of many of her songs: "Graveyard Dream Blues," "Any Woman's Blues," "Work House Blues," "St. Louis Blues," "Empty Bed Blues," and "House Rent Blues." But as she sang of empty bed blues, she also smiled at the woman's inevitable need for the irresponsible male and mused at the pleasures of sleeping alone occasionally. In the early 1930s, the records of Smith lost their popularity and her career waned. Things began improving a few years later, only to be ended tragically when she was killed in a car accident in 1937 near Clarksdale, Mississippi.