The end of the Great War (1914-18) produced a giddiness in America not seen since the “Gay Nineties” (1890s). The 1920s became known as “The Roaring Twenties” or “The Flapper Age,” the latter expression referring to women’s dresses with flaps. Jazz was all the rage for the White population, who could afford to buy record players and records. Due to ongoing segregation and the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, Blacks were relegated to buying cheap record players and records, if they could afford them at all, from Black-owned stores. Very few records sold in White stores featured, or even included, Black musicians. However, a major change in the music recording industry occurred in August 1920 with the recording of “Crazy Blues” by Black Blues singer Mamie Smith.
“African American culture greatly influenced the popular media that White Americans consumed in the 1800s. Still, there were not any primarily Black genres of music sold in early records. Perry Bradford, a famous Black composer, sparked a transition that displayed the potential for African American artists,” explains Wikipedia. “Bradford persuaded the White executive of Okeh Records, Fred Hager to record Mamie Smith, a Black artist who did not fit the mold of popular White music. In 1920, Smith created her ‘Crazy Blues/It’s Right Here for You’ recording, which sold 75,000 copies to a majority Black audience in the first month.”
The music industry immediately sat up and took notice. Okeh did not anticipate such enormous sales and attempted to recreate their success by recruiting more Black Blues singers. Other recording companies such as Columbia, Paramount, Victor and Vocalion quickly followed Okeh’s lead. Columbia went all-in and bought Okeh in 1926. The “Race Record” industry was thus formed to provide 78rpm records to Black audiences through Black-owned stores. Such records were not allowed for sale in White stores at the time. Race records were marketed to America’s Black population in this way from the 1920s through the 1940s. This accounted for approximately 10% of the record-buying market.
One might ask why so many early Blues singers were women. Following the stunning success of “Crazy Blues” all the major record labels were on the hunt for their very own Blues diva. About 100 race records featuring female Blues singers were cut in the two years following the launch of Mamie Smith’s breakthrough record, thus forming the period called “Classic Blues” or “Vaudeville Blues,” in which Black female Blues singers predominated.
Vaudeville and Prohibition were indeed in full swing in the early 1920s. Most of these “divas” were to be found Vaudeville, but some were discovered in night clubs and in Speakeasy clubs as Prohibition was the law of the land between 1920 and 1933. Most sales of Blues race records during the Flapper Age came from divas such as Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter and Lucille Hegamin.
Black Bluesmen were nowhere to be found in this early period, not in Vaudeville nor in recording studios. Why? “African-American Bluesmen were not welcome in the studio either, perhaps because their songs of oppression and need were considered to be too hot to handle politically at a time of the ‘Black Diaspora’, with the rise of the Klan in the south and race riots in Northern cities. The growing demand for Blues music would eventually breach this barrier, but in the early 20s, nobody was ready to make that breakthrough,” states the website All About the Blues.
The “Golden Age” of race music ranged from 1926 until the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929. When the Blues duo of Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey recorded “Tight Like That” in 1928 it set off a new trend called Hokum Blues, a sexually suggestive form relying heavily on innuendo and double entendres. “This chimed well with the culture of decadence and speakeasies in the cities and at ‘juke-joints’ in the countryside,” points out the All About site. Hokum was also called the “Dirty Blues,” but the object was not to be obscene but to make (mainly Black) audiences laugh. Bessie Smith’s contribution to Hokum was to ask for “a little sugar in my bowl” and one of her song titles was “Put It Right Here (Or Keep It Out of There).”
Nobody could sing the Blues or Hokum like Bessie Smith (1892-1937; no relation to Mamie), a raunchy and crude Black Blues singer, known as the “Empress of the Blues,” who would occasionally pause in a song to spit. The temperamental, hulking singer was as handy with her fists as with a microphone. At a tent performance in North Carolina in 1927, a half-dozen robed members of the KKK showed up and started pulling up the poles. When Bessie saw what was happening, she confronted the hooded men with fists at the ready, telling them they needed to run. They ran. Bessie went back on stage and continued her show. Black or White, nobody messed with Bessie Smith.
“Smith’s drinking, violent temper (and physical strength), and predatory sexual life involving both men and women were boundary breaking, even by the standards of free-living musicians of the Roaring Twenties,” states the New World Encyclopedia. In most performances, Bessie didn’t need a mic; she was so loud that listeners in balcony seats believed they were in the first row. Her best-selling record, “Downhearted Blues,” sold nearly 800,000 copies in its first six months in 1923 and two million copies in total. Columbia records was so impressed that it bought Bessie a private train car for touring since she was not allowed to ride in the first-class section of regular trains.
Bessie died in a tragic auto accident in 1937; she was only 45 years old. “Since her death, Bessie Smith’s music continues to win over new fans, and collections of her songs have continued to sell extremely well over the years. She has been a primary influence for countless female vocalists—including Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin —and has been immortalized in numerous works. A comprehensive, acclaimed bio on her life — Bessie, by journalist Chris Albertson — was published in 1972 and expanded in 2003. An HBO film loosely based on the book aired in 2015, with Queen Latifa (who also executive produced the project) portraying Smith and Mo’Nique playing Ma Rainey,” says www.biography.com.
Bessie Smith “Downhearted Blues”
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