Updated: Feb 10
We continue celebrating Black History Month, this time remembering a line-up of African-American womxn who were much more important musically than any rock idol, and that for cultural or social reasons, were silenced throughout much of their success. The legacy that black voices have left us and still leave us is unparalleled and essential to understanding the world of music, ranging from jazz, blues, soul or rock, to disco music. Today, we will talk about some womxn who set trends and opened the way for the next generations. Womxn who changed the history of the musical course since the early 20th Century. In this article, we will be pleased to say that a womxn was the first to record blues, and a womxn was the first to record rock and roll.
To kick off things chronologically, we can't start with any other empowered womxn than Mamie Smith, the first African-American woman to record a musical album.
A native of the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, at the age of 20, she took up residence in New York, where she trained as a singer, dancer, and actress in one of the Cabarets of the Big Apple. At that same time (1920), the record label "Ok Records", was about to release a Jazz compilation, where the main figure was going to be the singer Sophie Tucker, a very famous artist of the time, and not less important for that time, a white woman. However, due to an illness, she had to cancel her participation in the record. It was as a consequence of this that the composer of the songs that Sophie was to record, Perry Bradford, knew Mamie from her work at the Cabaret and immediately went on to recommend her to the record company and insisted that Mamie Smith be the one to record on the album. Mamie recorded two songs, which, although they were good, were not met with much success. Still, these songs opened the door that six months later, one of the historic events that would change everything in the world of American music, and that would position African American artists at the top of American musical recognition.
It was in that same year when Ok Records called Mamie Smith to sing "Crazy Blues", a song that became the first blues recording in the history of music. To put this into context, the audience that consumed this genre was white people, and the blues was the language of black people, so the crossover that happened here was something very important for the history of music. In 1994, "Crazy Blues" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, while in 2005, it was chosen as a Library of Congress Preservation Artwork.
As a result of this success, Ok Records began to look for black singers to continue replicating this phenomenon, among them was Bessie Smith.
The "Empress of the Blues" tried to break the borders imposed by racism with pure rhythm.
She enjoyed freedom, her attitude about life and especially about society was something that made many fingers point at her in those years, however, none of that damaged her unmistakable legacy as "The Empress of the Blues". Bessie Smith became one of the most recognized artists of this genre at that time. Her talent as an artist set her apart from the rest, she was not afraid of criticism, of the obstacles imposed by racism, of being a womxn tormented by toxic relationships. She expressed her pain in an empowered way: she did it through her music. Unfortunately, this brave woman was met with an infuriating untimely death. In 1937, Bessie had an accident, so her life depended on a blood transfusion. The segregation of the time meant that no hospital would accept her as they did not transfuse black people, which obviously culminated in Bessie's death in an ambulance. Her case became very famous, generating great anger in American society, and to this day, it is said that it was one of the sparks that ignited Martin Luther King.
She arrived on the scene twenty years before Elvis Presley, a decade before Chuck Berry, and invented rock.
SISTER ROSETTA THARPE
Born in Arkansas, Rosetta Tharpe was one of the pioneer womxn in the history of music, taking religious texts and the sound of the gospel beyond the praise of God. Rosetta was known to play the guitar since she was 4 years old. In her mid-teens (30's), she moved with her mother to Chicago, where the whole blues explosion was happening, and it was there that she played an electric guitar for the first time and started performing in clubs, where she inadvertently invented something. The fusion of her voice and her chords transformed - without having planned it - into the precursor sound of rock and roll. Her first Gospel recording "Strange Things Happening Every Day" is considered the first rock and roll song. After that success, she became the first artist to record gospel songs that entered the blues charts and radio, reaching the top of the charts. Her success made this phenomenon begin to explode, generating from the powerful combination of gospel music and the noise of electric guitars, and the birth of Soul. Rosetta composed hits that predated the rock and roll rampage, among others. Her music influenced artists such as Chuck Berry, Little Richards, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even Bob Dylan.
Rosetta has been married several times, and many of her relationships were with other womxn. Her level of pioneering for the time exceeds even in music.
The reality is that all of these womxn never met the standards of the music industry of the 1920s and 1930s, yet without their existence, nothing would have happened as it did. This Black History Month, we want to thank them and their legacy for setting the tone for countless empowered black womxn to come.