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bessy smithLong before Beyonce, Pattie La Belle, Chaka Khan, or any of those sistas were filling up arenas and stuntin’ on jumboTrons, Bessie Smith was rocking crowds on the vaudeville circuit.

One hundred and eighteen years ago today, Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894. She was raised in poverty and often ran away as a teenager to join traveling shows as a dancer.

Around 1912, she began singing in shows with another Black blues legend, Ma Rainey. Smith’s career took off in 1923 when she started recording her songs.

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Back in those days, it was a big deal for an artist to record their voice for it was the next step for an aspiring singer to take his or her career to a higher level. Smith signed with Columbia Records and her first recording was “Down Hearted Blues.”

This sista knew a thing or two about “the blues.” Her first husband, Earl Love, died just two years after they married. Her second marriage to Jack Gee didn’t work out, either. And like many talented artists of those days and today, Smith had a few issues with the bottle. On top of that, slavery ended just some sixty years before, so you know the racism was on, to take Kanye’s words, “on a hundred, thousand trillion.” But that didn’t stop her from becoming one of the best selling artists of her day.

What really separated Smith from many of her peers — and there were few — were her lyrics. She was certainly not a dignified, down home Southern Belle in the traditional sense. More conservative Black folks referred to her melodies as “the Devil’s music.” Take the first verse from Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues,” for example:

I woke up this morning with a awful aching head
I woke up this morning with a awful aching head
My new man had left me, just a room and a empty bed
Bought me a
coffee grinder
that’s the best one I could find
Bought me a coffee grinder that’s the best one I could find
Oh, he could grind my coffee, ’cause he had a brand new grind
He’s a deep sea diver with a stroke that can’t go wrong
He’s a deep sea diver with a stroke that can’t go wrong
He can stay at the bottom and his wind holds out so long
He knows how to thrill me and he thrills me night and day
Oh, he knows how to thrill me, he thrills me night and day
He’s got a new way of loving, almost takes my breath away
Lord, he’s got that sweet somethin’ and I told my girlfriend Lou
He’s got that sweet somethin’ and I told my girlfriend Lou
From the way she’s raving, she must have gone and tried it too

If that’s not freak music, then what is? So anyone who says that today’s artists are too sexual need to learn there history. There was certainly a historical precedent. Here is the audio to the song below.

One of Smith’s more memorable songs was “St. Louis Blues” recorded in 1929. The song was actually a tw0-reeler where Smith appeared on film for her first and only time.

Though she died tragically as a result of  injuries from a car accident on Sept. 27, 1937 at the age of 43, her legend lives on. She was inducted into the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” in 1989 and three of her songs, “Down Hearted Blues,” “Empty Bed Blues,” and “St. Louis Blues,” are enshrined in the Grammy Hall Of Fame.

Mrs. Bessie Smith, you are one of our all-time greats. What a fine sista’ and diva you were and continue to be.

Happy Birthday!


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