Who was Bessie Smith?

Singer Bessie Smith (1894–1937) became one of the most important women in the history of American music, both as a stage performer and recording star. Between 1923 and 1933, she gave the public such works as “Backwater Blues” and “Do Your Duty,” which became twentieth-century landmarks. In 1923 “Downhearted Blues/Gulf Coast Blues” was the first record by a black to sell more than a million copies. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Smith first performed on the city streets. She eventually performed with Ma (Gertrude) Rainey (1886–1939), the first professional to sing the blues, in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Smith’s only movie appearance was in the first film short featuring black musicians, Saint Louis Blues (later retitled Best of the Blues), in 1929.

Blues artist B. B. King performed for many decades with his guitar “Lucille.”


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