Black female singers of the 1920s & 1930s came from all over the country and from poverty and pain. They specialized in gospel and blues as well as jazz. Some went from vaudeville to Broadway and all the way to Hollywood. Each had difficulty getting paid fairly for her work. In spite of hardship and challenges, they left a rich trove of signature songs.
Madame Rainey, as Gertrude Pridgett Rainey liked to be called, is known as the "Mother of the Blues." The first big star of the 1920s vaudeville circuit, she worked for years without a record contract, even while helping young singers such as Bessie Smith get started. She also gave a boost to a young band leader named Louis Armstrong. Her fame was immortalized by August Wilson's Broadway hit, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which was named for one of her signature songs.
Victoria Spivey & Sippie Wallace
Although Victoria Spivey is virtually unknown in the 21st century, she made records with Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan. Starting her career in Houston as a piano player when she was 12, she moved to St. Louis in her early 20s and became a singer. Her signature hit was "Black Snake Blues." Also from Houston, Sippie Wallace, "the Texas Nightingale," is famous for the song "Woman Be Wise, Don't Advertise Your Man." Wallace took early inspiration from Ma Rainey, but developed her own style which included the "shout," a creative, improvisational delivery of lyrics.
Lucille Hegamin & Memphis Minnie
Georgia blues singer Lucille Hegamin was a self-taught musician whom Victoria Spivey helped get signed to a tour with Jelly Roll Morton. Some of Hegamin's most popular songs, such as "Alabamy Bound" and "Land of Cotton Blues" reflect her roots. Another southerner, Memphis Minnie, "Queen of Country Blues," named herself for her adopted home town. Memphis Minnie played banjo and guitar from the time she was 7. Her guitar is in the background of "I'm A Bad Luck Woman," from her "Best Of" album, "When the Levee Breaks." Her popularity continued well into the 1940s.
Billie Holiday & Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith, groomed by Ma Rainey to be "Empress of the Blues," fulfilled that destiny with the famous song, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down & Out." Billie Holiday wanted to be known as a jazz singer, but she learned to sing by listening to Smith's hit records such as "Careless Love." Smith was a southerner and Holiday was a northerner, but Holiday learned that southern blues style well. Two of her most famous recordings, "Summertime," in 1933, and "Strange Fruit," in 1939, evoked southern themes.
Ethel Waters & Ella Fitzgerald
Ethel Waters was the first of the black female singers of the era to slide into movies and later TV. The child of a 13-year-old rape survivor, she chose to end her career touring with evangelist Billy Graham. She usually performed her signature song, the religious "His Eye is on the Sparrow." Ella Fitzgerald, also known as the "First Lady of Song," got her start in 1934 in a talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Scat singing was her trademark. "A Tisket, A Tasket" from 1938 was her first million-selling hit.