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The “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith was born in 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Smith’s musical career began early, in fact out of necessity – as a child she was so poor, she sang in the streets for pennies. Her first stage appearance was at age nine at the Ivory Theatre. From this humble start, Smith went on to tour. Her big break was starring in Ma and Pa Rainey’s traveling vaudeville shows, where she perfected her skills.
By the early 1920s, Smith was an attraction on her own, which lead to the recording studio. In 1923 she made her first recording, “Downhearted Blues.” The song was immensely popular, selling an unprecedented 750,000 copies. Bessie Smith went on to record over 100 songs, in blues and pop styles.
Stories credit Ma Rainey with introducing Smith to the blues, but she named an unknown singer, Cora Fischer, as her first inspiration. Smith created the jazz-blues style of singing. She preferred polished,“educated” musicians, such as pianist Fletcher Henderson or organist Fred Longshaw, as her bandleaders. Smith sang with an incredible list of stars, including Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman. In 1937 Smith was fatally injured in an auto accident – many believe her medical care was delayed due to the color of her skin.
McKinley Morganfield was born in Mississippi in 1915. He learned to play harmonica and guitar early on, and soon everyone knew him as Muddy Waters. Muddy’s first recordings were made in 1941 by archivists preserving Negro folk music for the Library of Congress. Two years later, he moved to Chicago, a haven for blues musicians. His uncle bought him an electric guitar, and Muddy formed a band.
1951 was a great year for Muddy. His records for the Aristocrat label were being played on black radio stations all over the south. One of Chicago’s best blues clubs, Smitty’s Corner, made Muddy Waters the house band. And what a band it was! Each musician was a top-rate entertainer – there were too many greats to list! From there Muddy’s fame grew to legendary proportions – but it was not until the 1960s and ’70s that the general public became aware of his music.
Muddy’s band had a distinctive sound with wailing harmonica, heavy piano, bass, and drum rhythms, and slashing slide guitar from Muddy. Perhaps the band’s greatest feature was Muddy’s physical, aggressive vocals, which were drenched with emotion. His most popular tunes were “Forty Days and Forty Nights,” “Hootchie Coochie Man,” and “Mannish Boy.”
Eleanor Fagan was born in Baltimore in 1915. Her father, Clarence Holiday, was a successful traveling musician. She moved with her mother to New York City in 1929, where she first heard recordings of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. In 1930, while barely a teenager, “Billie” Holiday began playing small Harlem clubs. Two years later, jazz critic John Hammond helped her start recording with Benny Goodman. Although she was relatively unknown until 1935, these first recordings are considered jazz masterpieces.
From 1935-39 she made recordings with Teddy Wilson’s orchestra, as well as under her own name, which brought her a great deal of fame. Holiday also sang for Count Basie’s band in ’37 and with Artie Shaw in ’38. Through the 1940s and ’50s she toured clubs and theaters, and in 1954 and ’58 she toured Europe.
Billie Holiday’s personal life was marked by tragic events, including her addiction to, and eventual death from, heroin use in 1959. Her music was also emotional, with a warm, intensely personal style. Much of her best work was performed with her lover, saxophonist Lester Young, who gave her the endearing nickname “Lady Day.” Among her many hits were “All of Me,” “Strange Fruit,” and “Fine and Mellow.”
As a boy, Robert Johnson would sneak out of his house to see blues musicians perform. Eventually Johnson became a capable harmonica player, but his guitar playing was lacking. Then he ran away from home. When he returned his playing had improved dramatically, even impressing the men he once idolized. But that was not all that changed. Johnson had become a ladies’ man, and that, along with his lust for the nightlife and drinking, spelled trouble.
Johnson traversed the Mississippi Delta, where he was heard by many young musicians, such as Muddy Waters, who would later show his influence. In 1936 and ’37 Johnson recorded a total of 29 songs, considered among the most important early blues recordings, and still treasured by blues connoisseurs and musicologists alike.
Many of Johnson’s tunes like “Hell Hound on My Trail,” and “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day,” dealt with dark subjects. He sang with a tense voice which, combined with his slide guitar playing, produced a thrilling effect. In 1938, which was the prime of his life, Johnson was slipped a glass of poisoned whiskey while performing. Johnson was 27 years old when he died; however, his music will live forever.
Short of stature, but not of girth, James Andrew Rushing was affectionately known as “Mister Five by Five.” Born in 1902 to a musical family in Oklahoma, Rushing learned to play piano early in life. Later he traveled the country playing at dances, until he reached the west coast. There he joined Walter Page’s band, The Blue Devils. In 1929 Page went bankrupt, and Rushing joined the Bennie Moten Band. Moten passed away in 1935, and was replaced by William “Count” Basie. Rushing’s punchy, shouting, singing style was a perfect match for the Kansas City jazz, and he sang with Count Basie’s band for 15 fabulous years.
In 1950 Rushing formed his own band. From 1957 to 1960, Rushing was a major attraction at all the major jazz festivals, including a widely successful tour of Europe with Benny Goodman in 1958 and 1959.
With his rhythmic style, the words were less important than the sound of the voice, and Rushing often repeated simple rhymes in a song. His high-pitched voice could be authoritative or sensitive, and many popular vocalists have been influenced by his vocal and performance stylings. Rushing won many awards for his music, including the Melody Maker British critic’s choice for Number One Male Vocalist in 1957.
Gertrude Melissa Nix Pridgett was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1886. At age 14 she made her debut in a talent show, and was soon performing with vaudeville troupes. Four years later she married Will “Pa” Rainey, a member of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels traveling show. The couple toured under the name Rainey and Rainey – “The Assassinators of the Blues.” Everyone came to call Gertrude “Ma,” or the “Mother of the Blues,” as she claimed to have named the music.
Ma Rainey first discovered the “blues” when she heard a young girl singing a “strange and poignant” lament in a small Missouri town in 1902. Soon after she began incorporating a blues encore into her show. Later blues music became her main form of expression.
Ma Rainey had a powerful, contralto voice (the lowest female part), and sang with great emotion. Utilizing great control to produce a wide-ranging, sweeping sound, Rainey performed music true to her roots, and disliked risqué or commercial songs. In 1923 she began recording for Paramount, and was a great success. By 1928 she had recorded over 90 songs. After her mother’s death in 1934, Ma quit touring, and invested in two small theaters. Five years later she passed away in the comfort of her Columbus home.
Mildred Bailey was born in 1907 in Tekoa, Washington. While still in her teens she demonstrated sheet music and played at movie houses. In 1929 she joined Paul Whiteman’s band, and became the first female big-band vocalist. During this period she married Red Norvo, also a member of the band, and became known as “The Rockin’ Chair Lady,” due to her brilliant performance of the tune “Rockin’ Chair.” In 1932 Bailey was injured in an automobile accident, forcing her into inactivity.
In 1933 Bailey left Whiteman’s band, and with Norvo jointly lead a band. After 1939 she mainly worked as a solo act, and was featured on radio shows, including Benny Goodman’s, with whom she recorded. In 1944 and ’45 she had her own successful radio show.
Perhaps Mildred Bailey’s greatest work was with Norvo, doing swing arrangements of Eddie Sauter songs. The couple was very popular, and billed as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing.” Bailey was the first non-black singer accepted in jazz. Her vocal phrasing and high-pitched voice thrilled audiences, especially on ballads and soulful blues tunes. Bailey’s legacy lives on through the many recordings she made under her own name and the many famous musicians she sang with.
During his hard-driving performances, Chester Arthur Burnett sang out with such intensity that legendary musician Jimmie Rodgers nicknamed him “Howlin’ Wolf.” He was born in West Point, Mississippi on June 20, 1910, and brought up on a cotton plantation. There he was exposed to the traditional music of the Mississippi Delta. Howlin’ Wolf was taught and heavily influenced by Charley Patton, who was considered the model Delta blues performer. And although he did master the guitar and harmonica, his main instrument was always his powerful voice.
Howlin’ Wolf began his professional career when he was quite young, and performed all over Mississippi in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1940s he moved to the flourishing blues scene in Arkansas. His band there included James Cotton and Little Junior Parker, both of whom gained recognition on their own.
In 1951 he recorded his first record, “Moanin’ After Midnight,” which became a big hit and led him to Chicago. Howlin’ Wolf, along with Muddy Waters, turned Chicago into the blues capital of the world. Fame with white audiences came to Howlin’ Wolf in the 1960s and ’70s, when rock bands like the Rolling Stones acknowledged his influence on their music.
As a young boy in Seattle, Washington, Hendrix (1942-70) was drawn to the guitar, practicing on brooms before he got a real instrument. After a brief time as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army, Hendrix became a backup guitarist. He worked with top acts such as Ike and Tina Turner, the Isley Brothers, and Little Richard.
Hendrix moved to London in 1966 to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience. In less than a year, their debut album, Are You Experienced, topped the British charts with such classics as “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze,” and “Foxy Lady.” Hendrix then returned to America to play the Monterey International Pop Festival, becoming an overnight sensation after lighting his guitar on fire during “Wild Thing.” His stage performances became the stuff of legend – his 1969 Woodstock performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is considered one of the defining moments of the 1960s.
Hendrix’ meteoric career was cut short after just four years when he died suddenly in 1970. However, a trove of previously unreleased recordings and countless tributes keep Hendrix near the top of the charts and the inspiration of acts in all types of music.
Crossing the Texas border, a four-year-old girl was doused with gasoline by immigration officials to kill lice. Putting poverty and humiliation behind, Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007) soon became the first icon of Mexican-American culture.
Like thousands of other immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution, the Mendoza’s made their home in the Texas borderlands and found work as migrant laborers. Lydia learned to play guitar from her parents and songs lyrics from collecting bubble gum wrappers, which had the words printed on them to promote music publishers.
The Mendoza women played music for money in plazas and cafes, a practice that was dominated by men. After the family hitchhiked to San Antonio, Lydia caught the attention of a local radio announcer. Live radio performances led to a recording contract in 1934. Lydia’s version of Mal Hombre, which she had learned from a gum wrapper, became an overnight success. Accompanied only by her 12-string guitar, Lydia’s clear, powerful song styling helped to make Tejano (Texas-Mexican) music popular.
Known as the “Lark of the Border” and the Queen of Tejano music, Mendoza became the first Texan to receive the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship lifetime achievement award.
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