Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues

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Bessie Smith

(1894 – 1937) Dubbed the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith was one of the most successful black stars of the 1920s, and one of a handful of women singers of the era who brought the Blues to a wider audience. Born in 1894, Smith had lost her mother, father and a brother by the age of 9, and was raised by her older sister in Chatanooga, Tenn. With limited job prospects, Smith and her brother Andrew began playing for spare change on the street to support the family. In 1912, Smith joined a traveling vaudeville show as a dancer and...

Mamie Smith

(1883 – 1946) Mamie Smith made history when in 1920 she became the first African American singer to make a record of a Blues song, “Crazy Blues.” The record became a massive hit, changing the record industry and launching a new era of “race records” aimed at black listeners. Born in 1883, Smith entered show business at the tender age of ten. She spent the next decade working in vaudeville as dancer and singer. At age 20 she married and settled down in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where she became a regular performer in night clubs. On August 10, 1920, Smith...

Ma Rainey

(1886 – 1939) A hugely popular touring singer during the 1920s Ma Rainey was one of the earliest popular entertainers to perform and record Blues, spreading the popularity of the genre beyond traditional Blues audiences and earning her the nickname “The Mother of the Blues.” Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. She showed her abilities as an entertainer at an early age and went from local talent shows to touring with vaudeville and minstrel shows while still in her teens.  In 1904 she married William "Pa" Rainey, a minstrel show manager, and took the stage name...