Bessie Smith (top) and Ma Rainey
In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. The first four parts talked of British alternative rock, classical crossover, world music and electronic music, respectively. This month, we look at five of the earliest female blues legends.
WHEN one talks of the blues, most people would instantly think of legends like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, BB King or Willie Dixon. Or even blues-rock acts like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore. They’d talk of the slide guitar, harmonica and 12-bar chord progressions, or of songs like ‘I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and ‘Little Red Rooster’. More often than not, the mental picture would be of a man singing the blues, gleaming guitar in hand.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, however, the female blues singer reigned supreme. Though the male world had prominent names like W C Handy, Charlie Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson, that period had a string of women with awesome voices and amazing recordings. And though many of them specialised in the more rootsy form of blues, they also sang sophisticated jazz, theatrical vaudeville songs and popular Tin Pan Alley material.
Though old-timers would have fond memories of these female blues legends, many of today’s younger blues listeners haven’t been exposed to them. Their records are rare to find, but luckily, one finds a lot of their music on YouTube.
Here, we shall focus only on those singers who made it big in the blues only during those two decades, in the pre-World War II era. Another generation of female blues singers became popular in the 1950s, but that’s another story. We shall begin with five, and list some of the others at the end.
Ma Rainey: The undisputed ‘Mother of the Blues’, Rainey was one of the earliest professional singers in this genre, and among the earliest to record. Born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886, she began performing in her early teens and changed her name after marrying Will Rainey at the age of 18.
A majority of female singers have been directly or indirectly influenced by Rainey, who was best known for her powerful voice, energetic stage presence and a typical folk style of singing called ‘moaning’. Among her numerous recordings, ‘Bo-weevil Blues’, ‘Moonshine Blues’, ‘Soon This Morning’, ‘Black Bottom’ and ‘See See Rider’ were all popular in the 1920s. Her performances with jazz great Louis Armstrong, blues guitarist Tampa Red and singer Papa Charlie Jackson are remembered vividly.
Rainey died of a heart attack at the age of 53. While her work is remembered fondly, an interesting bit of trivia revolves around how, in 1965, Bob Dylan used her name in the song ‘Tombstone Blues’, where he sang, “Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll”. Dylan, after all!
Bessie Smith: While many other singers were given the title ‘Queen of the Blues’, the only one who deserved to be called ‘Empress of the Blues’ was the great Bessie Smith. The fact that she was a primary influence on some of the world’s greatest singers like Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington and Janis Joplin speaks volumes for her prowess.
Bessie’s songs ‘Downhearted Blues’, ‘Women’s Trouble Blues’, ‘St Louis Blues’ and ‘Empty Bed Blues’ have been covered by many. But her biggest success came with her rendition of Jimmy Cox’s iconic ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out’, which became an anthem during the Great Depression, and was revived when Eric Clapton recorded it in 1970 with his band Derek and the Dominoes.
Born in a poor family, Bessie lost both her parents before she was 10, and joined her brother to sing on the streets. Soon, she joined a troupe that also featured Ma Rainey, who influenced her to concentrate on the blues.
Bessie’s career was later affected by a serious gin-drinking problem, accompanied by falling record sales during the Great Depression. And just when she was staging a comeback with a series of successful concerts, she was killed in a car accident, allegedly denied admission by a whites-only hospital. She was only 43 and the world lost one of its greatest singers.
Mamie Smith: Even before Rainey and Bessie really hit the big time, another extremely talented singer became the first woman to record the blues with phenomenal success. In 1920, Mamie Smith recorded a set of tunes written by Afro-American songwriter Perry Bradford, including ‘Crazy Blues’ and ‘It’s Right Here For You’. The record created history, selling a million copies in less than a year.
Mamie’s repertoire moved much beyond the blues, as she excelled in jazz and vaudeville too, besides being a pianist, dancer and an actress. Following the success of her records, the industry began promoting other female singers, and Mamie herself was described as ‘Queen of the Blues’.
Mamie later concentrated on her group Jazz Hounds, and even acted in a few movies. She passed away in 1946 at age 63.
Ethel Waters: She excelled equally in blues, jazz and gospel, but she began with the blues in the 1920s. It’s often said that very few artistes deserved to express the blues more than Ethel Waters, a statement attributed to her tragic upbringing.
Born as a result of her mother’s rape, Ethel was never shown any love by her family. She married at 13, only to end up in an abusive relationship with her husband, whom she left. Soon, she ended up falling in love with a drug addict.
Ethel had a string of hits in the 1920s and 1930s, including ‘Stormy Weather’, ‘Dinah’, ‘Heat Wave’, ‘Cabin in the Sky’, ‘Taking a Chance on Love’, ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’ and ‘Am I Blue?’, featured in the 1929 movie ‘On With The Show’. She performed with the great Duke Ellington and pianist Fletcher Henderson, and later pursued a parallel film career. She died in 1977 from uterine cancer, aged 80.
Memphis Minnie: Lizzie Douglas aka Memphis Minnie was known not only as a singer but also as one of the earliest female guitar greats. Story has it that in 1933, she and the great bluesman Big Bill Broonzy got into a guitar contest. Broonzy, who was a very big name in Chicago, says in his autobiography ‘Big Bill Blues’ that a jury of fellow musicians awarded Minnie the prize of a bottle of whisky and a bottle of gin for her performance of ‘Chauffeur Blues’ and ‘Looking the World Over’.
Minnie began learning banjo and guitar when she was eight, and in five years, ran away from home to play on the streets. Later, she even took to prostitution to earn additional income.
One of her earliest hits was ‘When the Levee Breaks’, a song performed with her second husband Joe McCoy, and many years later reworked by rock band Led Zeppelin. Her other hits include ‘Bumble Bee Blues’, ‘Hoodoo Lady’, ‘I’m Gonna Bake My Biscuit’ and ‘I Want Something For You’.
Minnie, who died in 1973 at age 76, was a huge influence on many later blues musicians, including the great guitarist-singer Bonnie Raitt.
WHILE these were five of the biggest pioneers, the list of female blues greats from the 1920s and 1930s would be incomplete without mentioning a few other names. Notable among them were Ida Cox, often called the ‘Uncrowned Queen of the Blues’, and Victoria Spivey, who was inspired by Mamie Smith to become a blues singer, and hit the big time with her 1926 original ‘Black Snake Blues’.
Two other Smiths — Clara Smith, who often accompanied Bessie, no relation of hers, and Trixie Smith — had a huge following. As did Alberta Hunter (one of the first to tour Paris and London), Sara Martin and Sippie Wallace, known as the ‘Texas Nightingale’.
And yes, there was the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, who attracted attention from the mid-1930s. Though called the ‘Voice of Jazz’, she had a style that boasted strong blues leanings, strongly influenced by blues singers Bessie Smith and Blue Lu Barker. Her biopic, starring Diana Ross, is called ‘The Lady Sings the Blues’, and she had a huge impact on many later-day blues singers.
Needless to say, that era had some astonishing talent. The voices those days were supple, soulful and stirring. Those ladies really sang the blues.