The first major blues and jazz singer on record and one of the most powerful of all time, Bessie Smith rightly earned the title of “The Empress of the Blues.” Even on her first records in 1923, her passionate voice overcame the primitive recording quality of the day and still communicates easily to today’s listeners (which is not true of any other singer from that early period). At a time when the blues were in and most vocalists (particularly vaudevillians) were being dubbed “blues singers,” Bessie Smith simply had no competition.
Back in 1912, Bessie Smith sang in the same show as Ma Rainey, who took her under her wing and coached her. Although Rainey would achieve a measure of fame throughout her career, she was soon surpassed by her protégée. She perfected her powerful delivery in the cabarets of Philadelphia and Atlantic City where she was a frequent attraction. In 1920, Smith had her own show in Atlantic City and, in 1923, she moved to New York. She was soon signed by Columbia and her first recording (Alberta Hunter’s “Downhearted Blues”) made her famous.