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History of the Blues

As a commercial proposition blues recordings got off to a sudden start. The popular legend held that in August 1920 when Sophie Tucker, an extremely popular white vaudevillian, canceled a recording session, Mamie Smith stepped in and recorded Crazy Blues, the first blues hit. In fact, Smith had recorded two tunes in February (which had been intended for Tucker) and these pop songs sold well enough that she was brought back to make another record. Smith, recording with African American musicians, made the record that "shook up the record business of the day" as it went on to sell 75,000 copies and established the commercial viability not just of the blues but of recordings by many kinds of black artists (Shaw 95). All the major record labels began so-called "race music" series and only three years after Mamie Smith's first hit Bessie Smith's first recording, Down Hearted Blues, sold nearly 800,000 copies.

The singers who popularized the blues seldom limited themselves to this type of song. Their work has been described as "an amalgam of popular music infused with Blues elements" (Salaam 366). Some very important artists, such as Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter, recorded blues songs but this was only a single aspect of their careers. The greatest performers in this genre, Gertrude "Ma' Rainey and Bessie Smith, demonstrate the manner in which the blues was taken in different directions. They represented "at least a partial swing away from the vaudeville blues" performed by Mamie Smith and others (Spottswood 95). Rainey's country-roots approach and Smith's jazz-inflected singing both partook of the popular vaudeville type entertainments in which they began working but went far beyond them.

For the most part the singers of the Classic Blues era were well established artists before they began recording. They had appeared in tent and minstrel shows and their repertoires were quite broad. Rainey's adoption of the blues form wa...

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History of the Blues. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 12:58, July 28, 2017, from
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