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Classic female blues was an early form of blues music, popular in the 1920s. Popular singers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters were among the first blues artists to be recorded and were instrumental in spreading the popularity of the blues.

History

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, from Georgia, was the “Mother of the Blues,” and lived from 1886–1939. She was the first woman to incorporate blues into her act of show songs and comedy. In 1902, she heard a woman singing about the man she’d lost, and quickly learned the song. From then on at each performance, she used it as her closing number calling it “the blues.” She recorded over 100 songs and wrote 24 of them herself. “Bessie Smith (and all the others who followed in time), wrote jazz historian Dan Morgenstern “learned their art and craft from Ma, directly or indirectly.” Young women followed Ma Rainey’s path in the tent show circuit, since black performers were not allowed to be in venues. Eventually most singers were booked on the T.O.B.A. (Theatre Owners Booking Association) circuit.

Mamie Smith, “America’s First Lady of the Blues,” was the first black woman to record the blues in 1920. Harlem songwriter/music publisher, Perry Bradford, brought Smith by the Okeh studio to get his songs heard. Sophie Tucker was ill on the day of her session and Okeh allowed Smith to record. They recorded two non-blues songs but were brought back into the studio to record a blues song six months later. All of the recording band members claimed different titles for the song that became known as “Crazy Blues.” The song sold over 17,000 copies in its first month. This affected the recording industry so that hundreds of black female singers began being scouted, booked and recorded.

The most popular of these women was Tennessee-born Bessie Smith. She was known as the “Empress of the Blues.” She possessed a large voice with a “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” attitude. Bessie was a dancer before she was a singer, but was let go because her skin color was too dark. She also struggled initially with being recorded—three companies turned her down before she was signed with Columbia. She eventually became the highest-paid black artist of the 1920s, but by the 1930s she was making half as much as her usual salary. She died in a car crash in 1937, at the age of 41. Lionel Hampton is quoted as saying, “Had she lived, Bessie would’ve been right up there on top with the rest of us in the Swing Era.” Mahalia Jackson and Janis Joplin both claimed to have drawn great inspiration from her singing. Her work is well documented in print as well as recording with over 160 songs currently available.

Hailing from Texas were Victoria Spivey and her cousin Sippie Wallace. Victoria Spivey was influenced after a Mamie Smith performance to become a blues singer. At 16, she became an overnight success with Okeh’s release of her original song, “Black Snake Blues.” She also appeared in the first all-black talking film. She continued performing throughout her life with a brief hiatus in the 1950s. She was the only classic blues singer to have her own record label, Spivey Records. In addition to recording herself, she recorded Lucille Hegamin, Memphis Slim, Lonnie Johnson and others. As a songwriter, pianist and singer, she produced over 1,500 songs. She died in 1976 at 70.

Decline and revival
With the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the popularity of the blues singers declined. Some female singers went back home, took up jobs or moved to Hollywood. In the 1960s with the blues revival, Sippie Wallace, Alberta Hunter, Edith Wilson and Victoria Spivey returned to the stage.

Significance

The classic female blues singers were pioneers in the record industry, among the first black singers and blues artists recorded. They were also instrumental in popularizing the 12-bar blues throughout the US.