Forebears: Bessie Smith, The Empress Of The Blues

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In her music, Bessie Smith — known as the “Empress Of The Blues” — communicated the kind of outward urgency and inner stillness that often signals the telling of an absolute truth.

Carl Van Vechten Photograph Collection/Library of Congress

This essay is one in a series celebrating women whose major contributions in recording occurred before the time frame of NPR Music’s list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.

She was big and brown and built high off the ground — “a hell of a woman,” men called her, but most women said she was “rough.” And while there were other blues singers in the first half of the 20th century — some who shared her surname — none could be mistaken for Bessie Smith. Not Mamie Smith or Clara or Trixie or Ruby or Laura.

None of the others could sing with her combination of field holler and Jazz Age sophistication. None could throw her voice from the stage — without a microphone — and make a balcony seat feel like the front row. None made such an artistic impression on her contemporaries in jazz, or her disciples in rock ‘n’ roll. That’s because she was the “Empress of the Blues”and empress is, by definition, a solo gig.

What came out of Smith onstage grabbed people by the lapels and shook them up — not because she was new and different, but rather because she was so powerfully familiar. She sang about the kind of trouble that most people knew well, and her shouts and lamentations identified a depth of feeling that nearly everyone experiences, but would be hard-pressed to describe.

“She just upset you,” says the New Orleans musician and jazz ranconteur Danny Barker in a landmark 1956 jazz history. Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It devotes an entire chapter to Smith as a musical influence — the only woman afforded such consideration. Barker saw her perform in the 1910s and ’20s before he moved to New York. “If you have a church background,” he writes, “like people who came from the South as I did, you would recognize a similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people … Bessie did the same thing on stage.”

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