The Forgotten Story of Americas’ First Black Superstars
Dorian Lansksy/BBC Culture In the 1920s US, glamorous, funny black female singers were the blues’ first – and revolutionary hitmakers. Why were they then relegated to the sidelines… On Valentine’s Day 1920, a little over a century ago, a 28-year-old singer named Mamie Smith walked into a recording studio in New York City and made history. Six months later, she did it again.
The music industry had previously assumed that African Americans wouldn’t buy record players, therefore there was no point in recording black artists. The entrepreneurial songwriter Perry Bradford, a man so stubborn he was known as “Mule”, knew better. “There’s 14 million Negroes in our great country and they will buy records if recorded by one of their own,” he told Fred Hagar at Okeh Records. When a white singer dropped out of a recording session at the last minute, Bradford convinced Hagar to take a chance on Smith, a Cincinnati-born star of the Harlem club scene, and scored a substantial hit. Bradford then decided to use Smith to popularise a form of music that had been packing out venues in the South for almost 20 years. On 10 August, Smith and an ad hoc band called the Jazz Hounds recorded Bradford’s “Crazy Blues.” Thus, the first black singer to record anything also became the first to record the blues.
Rarely has the music industry’s received wisdom been upended by a single hit. By selling an estimated one million copies in its first year, Crazy Blues was like the first geyser of oil in untapped ground, instantly revealing a huge appetite for records made by and for black people. As labels such as Okeh, Paramount and Columbia rushed into the so-called “race records” market, they snapped up dozens of women like Smith, (“Queen of the Blues”), including Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (“Mother of the Blues”), Bessie Smith (“Empress of the Blues”), Ida Cox (“Uncrowned Queen of the Blues”), Ethel Waters, Sara Martin, Edith Wilson, Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace and Alberta Hunter. …Find this cool, full story