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Jazz and blues vocalist Bessie Smith's powerful, soulful voice won her countless fans and earned her the title "Empress of the Blues."
Ray Charles - Mini Biography (4:13)
A short biography of Bessie Smith, who became known as the "Empress of the Blues." Her distinctive voice made her one of the first jazz singers to appear on records.
Louis Armstrong, nicknamed "Satchmo," "Pops" and, later, "Ambassador Satch," was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. An all-star virtuoso, he came to prominence in the 1920s, influencing countless musicians.
Josephine Baker fought for racial equality as a performer in the 1920s and '30s. Learn the steps that this dancer took in the fight against discrimination.
Ray Charles was one of America's greatest musicians, pioneering the genre of soul music during the 1950s by fusing rhythm & blues, gospel and blues.
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In 1933, Smith was brought back from semi-obscurity by producer John Hammond, who contracted her to make new recordings backed by a band that included jazz legend Benny Goodman. The recordings hint at the coming Swing Era and mark Smith’s return to the spotlight.
Over the next few years, Smith continued to tour, hoping to recapture her earlier success and to take advantage of the growing popularity of swing. However, on September 26, 1937, Smith was en route to a performance in Memphis, Tennessee with her companion of many years, Richard Morgan, when he sideswiped a truck and lost control of their car. Smith was thrown from the vehicle and badly injured. She was reportedly refused treatment at a "whites only" hospital before being taken to one that would treat blacks. It was there that she died of her wounds. She was 43.
Smith’s funeral was held in Philadelphia a week later, with thousands coming to pay their respects. She was buried in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania.
Since her death, Bessie Smith’s music continues to win over new fans, and collections of her songs have continued to sell extremely well over the years. She has been a primary influence of countless female vocalists—including Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin—and has been immortalized in numerous works, including Edward Albee’s 1961 play The Death of Bessie Smith.
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Many African-Americans made their name performing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, including Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. The roster of talented artists who made their careers after a successful amateur night at the Apollo grew so large, that the venue earned a reputation as the place to jump-start the career of an ambitious hopeful. Other performers, like Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson, came to the theater after experiencing big professional success, adding further credibility to the historic New York concert hall. Explore the biographies of some of the more notable African-Americans who stepped out onto the Apollo stage, making entertainment history.
Apollo Legends 25 people in this group
In the 1920s, women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were the first—and for a while, the only—artists to record the blues. American women of this era made great strides toward gaining equality and basic human rights for themselves and others in society, including attaining the right to vote and working toward social justice. The 20th century was a wide-open opportunity for women to embrace the modern world, outside of the traditional bounds of the home.
Foremothers of Rock 10 people in this group
With its roots in the blues, jazz has been referred to as America's classical music, yet has also become a major global phenomenon, branching off into a variety of forms. Earlier pioneers like Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton paved the way for the swinging big-band sounds of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. In contrast, contemporaries Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk developed bebop, with its speedy, dissonant harmonies and improvisations. And Miles Davis heralded the birth of cool jazz, modal jazz and fusion at different points in his career. Famous jazz instrumentalists have tended to be male, yet women have been at the forefront of the genre when it comes to vocalization, from the brassy blues of Bessie Smith to the haunting eclecticism of Nina Simone.
Famous Jazz Musicians 29 people in this group