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10 Blueswomen who Changed Music Forever

#345

Lillias White in August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The blues is much more than a musical genre to the title character of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which plays the Mark Taper Forum through October 16, 2016. To the Ma Rainey of August Wilson’s imagination, the blues is “life’s way of talkin’.” She goes on to explain, “You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understandin’ life.”

Perhaps that’s why, in the 1920s, the blues filled the smoky halls of illegal speakeasies and the mahogany studies of East Coast aristocrats alike. It fueled a fledgling recording industry as well as the careers of America’s first celebrities of color, including “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey. But Ma was only part of a pantheon of pioneering blueswomen who revolutionized the world of entertainment by singing about the dark side of life—bad relationships, loneliness, money troubles. In honor of Ma’s run at the Taper, we’ve put together a list of some of our favorite blueswomen as well as a playlist of the music they used to understand the language of life.

Ethel Waters (1896 – 1977)
Ethel Waters’ career was as long as it was illustrious. She began singing in Philadelphia nightclubs when she was only 14 and continued working until her death in 1977. She was the first African-American to perform on the radio, a constant presence on Broadway, and an Oscar-nominated Hollywood actor. She was famous for her precise timing and well-defined phrasing, which she employed to great effect with classics such as “Stormy Weather” and “St. Louis Blues.” For the last 15 years of her life, Waters toured alongside the evangelist Billy Graham, recording hymns and devotionals for his crusades such as “His Eye is on the Sparrow”(a song that would eventually become her signature). Yet Waters died in near poverty, subsisting off a paltry drawing from Social Security and the kindness of her friends and family. Even so, according to her obituary in the L.A. Times, those who were close to her reported, She was happy, even sick and broke as she was. To the end she affirmed her faith as in the song that had come to mean so much to her: “I’m sittin’ on the edge of heaven—and His eye is still on me…”
Marion Harris (1896 – 1944)
The early life of Marion Harris is shrouded in mystery. However, in 1917 she cemented her place in music history by becoming the first woman to record a rendition of a jazz song (or at least the first woman to record one with the word “jazz” in the title): “I’m a Jazz Vampire.” She was a constant presence on New York stages throughout the ’20s and even made an MGM feature, Devil May Care. During the ’30s, she spent much of her time in London, where she performed at the Café de Paris as well as on the BBC. In 1944, she died tragically in a hotel fire after falling asleep with a lit cigarette. She is famous for standards such as “Tea for Two” and “Look for the Silver Lining.”
Clara Smith (1894 – 1935)
Though unrelated to—and overshadowed by—the more famous Bessie Smith, Clara Smith is considered to be one of the most well-respected blueswomen of the ’20s. Smith arrived in New York in 1923 and went on to record 122 songs with artists such as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Bessie Smith herself. The two Smiths were actually close personal friends until Bessie, reportedly drunk one night in 1925, physically attacked Clara. Smith’s vocal style was deep and soulful, earning her the nickname “Queen of the Moaners.” She died of a heart attack in 1935 at the age 40, but not before she cut her legacy into the vinyl of a Columbia record with songs like “Sobbin’ Sister Blues” and “Woman to Woman.”
Mae Glover (1906 – 1946)
At the age of 13, Lillie Mae Glover ran away from home to sing in a traveling show. She told a reporter years later, I wanted to sing the blues, but my father was a pastor, and the blues were looked on in those days as dirty music. And for me to stay in Nashville would have been a disgrace for my family. Suffering from something of an identity crisis (or simply butting up against the difficulties of being an African-American woman in the recording industry), Glover recorded music under many names including May Armstrong and Ma Rainey II (after Ma Rainey’s death in 1939), and became a fixture on the world-famous Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1981, she was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Music and Entertainment for songs such as “Joe Boy Blues” and “Lonesome Atlanta Blues.”
Mamie Smith (1883 – 1946)
While Ma Rainey may be referred to as the “Mother of the Blues,” Mamie Smith may be equally deserving of the title. Her 1920 record Crazy Blues was both the first blues record ever recorded and the first blues smash hit, appealing to both white America and people of color. In fact, its success is lauded as the event that alerted record companies to the popularity of the blues as a musical genre (as well as the potential market in records made by and for minority groups). But perhaps Mamie’s biggest accomplishment was paving the way for every blueswoman to follow, shaping the archetype as a woman of glamor, taste, and refinement. Yet by the end of the ’20s, Smith’s career was over. She reportedly died penniless and forgotten in 1946 before being buried in an unmarked community grave. Even so, her influence remained. Seventeen years after her death, musicians in Iserlohn, West Germany, organized a benefit to buy Mamie a tombstone. Before shipping the stone to New York to be interred at the Frederick Douglas Memorial Park, they inscribed it with the message: “Mamie Smith 1893 – 1946, First Lady of the Blues.”
Victoria Spivey (1906 – 1976)
Born into a family of musicians, Victoria Spivey got her start in Texas, touring with her father’s string band, then setting out on her own after his death. Spivey was an unusual artist for the time in that she wrote most of her own music and often accompanied herself on the piano. Even more unusual was that her music brazenly explored taboo subjects including sex, drugs, and violence. These “dirty” blues (as they were called) are probably best exemplified by Spivey’s first hit, an extremely thinly veiled lament titled “Black Snake Blues” as well as the incredibly direct “Dope Head Blues.” Spivey is, perhaps, most unusual for the fact that she ended her career not as a performer, but as a record mogul. In the early ’60s, Spivey and her boyfriend founded Spivey Records, which produced albums for artists such as Bob Dylan and Memphis Slim.
Edith Wilson (1896 – 1981)
Edith Wilson is considered one of the first great crossover artists who introduced the blues to white audiences. She devoted most of the ’20s to touring the globe in musical revues, spreading the influence of early blues and jazz beyond the American continent and into the waters of the world music market. However, Wilson is probably most famous for being the face of Aunt Jemima pancake syrup until the ’50s. She was also an active member of the Negro Actors’ guild—an organization founded with the goal of creating opportunities for black actors in the entertainment industry. She died of a cerebral brain hemorrhage in 1980, but not before recording songs like “How Come You Do Me Like You Do?” and “Loving You The Way I Do.”
Ida Cox (1896 – 1967)
Born Ida Prather, Ida Cox—like many blues singers—began her career on the vaudeville circuit. In 1923, she made her first of many recordings with Columbia Records—a track titled “Graveyard Blues.” Cox worked steadily throughout the ’20s and while she may not be as well-known as Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith, she was popular enough to be known as the “Uncrowned Queen of the Blues.” While Victoria Spivey may have been famous for her “dirty” blues, it was Ida Cox who made them possible—a fact best exemplified by her 1924 hit “Wild Women Don’t have the Blues.” In 1945, Cox suffered a stroke and all but retired from the recording industry, singing exclusively for her church choir until 1961 when she made her final recording, the album Blues for Rampart Street.
Sippie Wallace (1898 – 1986)
Beulah “Sippie” Thomas was the fourth of 14 children born to George W. Thomas and his wife Fanny in Houston, Texas. She was introduced to music through her Baptist church (her father was deacon). Unlike many blueswomen who ran away from home to chase the uncertainty of a career in entertainment, music was a family affair for Sippie. Both her older brother, George Jr., and her younger brother, Hersal, were accomplished musicians in their own rights. In 1920, the three formed a musical trio that would prove the start of Sippie’s six-decade long career. During the ’20s, Sippie recorded hits such as “I’m a Mighty Tight Woman” and “Special Delivery Blues,” securing her place in the blues canon. She passed into obscurity after the deaths of her brothers and her husband. However, in 1966 her friend Victoria Spivey convinced her to join her in recording a series of duets, which was released as Sippie Wallace and Victoria Spivey. The two performed all over, marking the second portion of Wallace’s career, which would stretch until her death in 1986.
Bessie Smith (1894 – 1937)
The late, great Bessie Smith was once known as the “Empress of the Blues.” Born in Tennessee in 1894, Smith began her recording career in 1923 with a contract at Columbia. Before that, Ma Rainey famously took the young Smith under her wing as a protégée (and, according to some, a lover). Smith’s hits are too numerous to count, but some of her most famous recordings include “Backwater Blues” and “St. Louis Blues” (which she recorded with Louis Armstrong). Smith’s star rose high during the ’20s, but by the ’30s she was beginning to fall into the depths of obscurity. Still, Smith continued to tour until a car accident led to her death at age 43. Smith’s legacy and influence continue to make their mark on young artists of all kinds, even 80 years after her death. In 2015, HBO premiered Bessie—a biopic based on Smith’s life and starring Queen Latifah—bringing Smith, once again, into the spotlight where she was most comfortable.
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