The blues has played a foundational component to virtually every genre we have today. In the early days of the genre, many black female blues singers surfaced at the start of the 20th century, giving us many of the classics that we know and love today. So in this article, we’re going to pay some respect to these artists by counting down our favorite singers that we believe made a major impact on blues music.
Black Female Blues Singers That Are Amazing
Let’s kick off this list by paying homage to Ma Rainey.
A historic and extremely influential vaudeville performer through the early 20th Century, Ma Rainey’s career crowned her the title “Mother of the Blues,” and went on to inspire many talented artists after her.
During her time in vaudeville, Ma Rainey took many musical mentees. With her low moaning and deep vocal characteristics, she was the perfect country blues teacher.
As one might imagine, life for a black traveling musician was neither easy nor financially fruitful in the early 1900s, but nevertheless Ma persisted. To this day, Ma is believed to be one of the earliest recorded blues musicians, signing on with Paramount Records in 1923. She went on to produce over 100 titles throughout her contract.
Despite the struggles caused by her ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and economic class, Ma Rainey carried herself with pride and integrity, never succumbing to societal pressures. She maintained her originality and stayed true to herself, making her both a blues icon and a cultural legacy.
If you’re looking for an empowering song that preserves the rural blues sound, check out her song “Prove It on Me Blues,” a powerful ballad about her homosexual pride and love for dressing however she damn well pleases.
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You don’t earn the title “Empress of Blues” without having what it takes to perfectly deliver that famous 12-bar musical style.
A Chattanooga native born 1894, Bessie Smith was no stranger to hardship. Hurdles of death, poverty, abusive relationships, and personal struggles due to her sexual identity, ended up paving the very foundation on which her blues music success would be built upon.
Bessie’s performing career began around age 9 when she started dancing in local minstrel shows. These racially charged forms of theater would carry Bessie deep into the vaudeville life, introducing her to Ma Rainy, and fueling her blues reputation across the South and into the East Coast.
Sometime in 1923, Bessie Smith signed with Columbia Records and released her first recording with co-singer Alberta Hunter “Down Hearted Blues,” which went on to sell 800,000 copies. After that, Smith became the highest paid black musician of her day, producing 160 titles in her 8-year contract.
Check out her song “Down Hearted Blues,” the song that made Bessie Smith the first black musician to have sold just under a million records.
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Known as the “Uncrowned Queen of the Blues” due to the overshadowing of her contemporaries Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Ida Cox made her own name in blues music.
With vaudeville style blues phasing out, Ida brought a new spin when she began incorporating an atypical AAB structure in her music. In addition to her out-of-the-box blues characteristics, Ida is coined for her feminist-forward lyrics representing what it’s like to be an African American woman in the United States.
Her relatable lyrics, unique blues style, and welcoming presence made Ida a respected blues singer by her own right.
Check out her song “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues,” a female empowerment song about self-confidence and sexual freedom.
Until 1920, no black singer had recorded the blues yet. By pure luck, Mamie Smith made blues music history the day she filled in on the recording “Crazy Blues.” The original singer fell ill, bringing in Mamie as her understudy.
As a vaudeville performer, Smith’s foundation wasn’t built upon the blues, but her versatility demonstrated her ability to pick up the genre quickly. Her recording of “Crazy Blues” sold 85,000 copies within the month.
Mamie’s historic moment in blues not only earned her a recognizable name, but also opened opportunities for professional black music of the time, without which, we wouldn’t have the music varieties we do in modern day America. We can’t appreciate music of the present without honoring recording blues musicians of the past, and Mamie Smith kickstarted it all.
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Born in 1897, Memphis Minnie is considered one of the best female blues singers of all time.
Minnie learned to play guitar and banjo early in her life, around the age of 10. Her naturally gifted ability to pluck guitar strings took her into the performing life fast. After honing her abilities in country blues on Beale Street, Minnie went on to take her talents to Chicago in 1930, where she would introduce country blues to the city.
Minnie’s blues abilities are truly something to behold. As a singer, songwriter, and guitar player, she has been recognized along other great blues musicians both male and female, influencing some of the major names of the genre such as Muddy Waters.
Big Mama Thornton
You may have heard “Ball and Chain” sung by Janis Joplin, or Elvis Presley’s hip swirling version of “Hound Dog”, but neither of those now-famous songs would exist without the original artist Big Mama Thornton.
In 1941, early in her career, Thornton earned the title as the “New Bessie Smith” performing in a Georgia based show called The Hot Harlem Revue. Her robust vocals wouldn’t stay in Georgia for long, and she’d find herself shaping the sound of Texas blues after moving to Houston in 1948.
Said to be a “notorious demonstration of inequity that often exists when a black original is covered by a white artist” Thornton’s release of “Hound Dog” in 1953 only earned her a one-time payout of $500 despite selling 2 million copies and topping R&B Charts. Three years later, the famous musician Elvis Presley would release his vigorously watered-down rendition of the song, selling around 3 million copies and gaining ample fame. While the exact dollar amount earned for Presley’s version of “Hound Dog” is uncertain, one safe assumption can be made: Elvis was certainly awarded more than a singular payment of $500 for the song.
One of my personal favorites of Big Mama Thornton’s is “Ball and Chain.” Check out the 2022 remastered live version for a special impromptu blues intro, along with some priceless Mama Thornton commentary.
Described as a hardcore blues singer, Lucille Bogan made a name for herself by using direct, intentional sexual themes in her songs.
While many other blues singers were singing of heartache, hard times, and hard work, Lucille Bogan was singing about prostitution, lesbianism, alcoholism, drug addiction, and adultery.
Lucille was a true pioneer of her time, taking the title of a dirty blues singer and running with it. While her song lyrics may not have boded well in the 1920s and 30s, Lucille was truly ahead of her time.
The sexuality of black women had been held under the microscope of society, constantly scrutinized for the wild idea that they might desire and deserve pleasurable sex like everyone else. Black women have faced exhausting levels of backlash for their sexually confident music: an issue still prevalent in modern day music. Bogan took that backlash head-on and pushed forward with her love for dirty blues regardless of the criticism – a true feminist of her time.
Bogan served as a role model to black female musicians across the genres. Through her dirty blues music, she left a lasting impression with her songs. She allowed female listeners to reclaim the power within their sexuality, while simultaneously providing space for sexual healing.
A Harlem Renaissance blues singer and crossdresser, Gladys Bentley is known to be one of the most financially successful black women of the 20s and 30s.
A talented pianist and blues singer with her own unique look, Bentley drew in audience members of black, white, gay, and straight alike. Her deep, booming voice paired with her dashing tuxedo attire and flirtatious stage presence made her a truly entertaining spectacle of the time.
Bentley’s shameless self-confidence and love for performance earned her a lavish life throughout much of her career, but the Great Depression would unfortunately derail her success rate. With the decline of work and the influx in homophobia, later in her life Bentley claimed that she had been “cured” of her homosexuality and was rumored to have married a man.
It’s truly heartbreaking to witness such genius of entertainment fall victim to small homophobic minds and economic collapse in America. Gladys Bentley deserves recognition for her superior demonstration of self-pride, and the courage she no-doubt instilled in those who can relate to her story.
Inspired by the success of recording artist Mamie Smith, Esther Bigeou was a vaudeville performer who picked up blues along her journey.
Known as the “girl with the million-dollar smile,” Esther’s music took her to different theaters on the East Coast alongside the Broadway Rastus Revue. After which, she would gain solo tour momentum around the Midwest, South, and Northeast throughout the 20s.
Esther may not have made blues music history by pioneering a new style or selling millions of records, but she continued fueling the classic blues style that we know and love today.
Check out Esther’s song “The Hesitating Blues” for a great depiction of Esther’s endearing vocals.
Lucille Hegamin’s addictive voice begs to be played on the living room record player, so it’s no wonder she became the second African American recording blues artist, proceeding Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues.”
Her voice, smooth as butter, shivers its vibrato throughout her music, adding a sweet coating to her bluesy lyrics.
As many blues singers of the time, Lucille made her money performing in minstrels shows, which took her into the booming blues city of Chicago. There she would work with none other than Jelly Roll Morton, working cabarets and nightclubs.
Lucille’s style reflects Mamie Smith’s with its lighter urban sound, unlike the rough and tumble country blues of Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith.
One of my favorite songs by Lucille Hegamin is “Has Anybody Seen My Corine” for its bluesy feel that borderlines a smooth jazz appeal.
Madilyn Davis made her blues career in Chicago around 1927 when she signed with Paramount Records.
Shortly after signing her contract, Madilyn recorded and released songs throughout the year, including her song “Kokola Blues,” which would later go on to inspire the hit song “Sweet Chicago Blues,” made famous by the Blues Brothers.
Madilyn’s repertoire is short and sweet, but don’t let her low quantities of songs fool you. Her music packs a punch as it combines the drowsy sound of blues with the punchy style of swing and jazz.
Her song “Winter Blues” is a fantastic demonstration of her personality. While Madilyn’s bluesy vocals deliver melancholy lyrics, she provokes bubbly instrumental solos that would make anyone want to get up on their feet and dance.
A contemporary of the famous moaning blues singer Ma Rainey, Clara Smith made a name for herself as the “Queen of the Moaners.” Her nickname often misled her listeners, as her typical singing style is a higher pitch, with the ability to orchestrate a low moan when necessary.
Smith’s career kicked off around 1928, performing in theaters across the United States. Like many of the great singers like her, Clara’s career was birthed from vaudeville and traveling circus shows. While her style may have started off slightly gloomy, for obvious reasons, it grew into a more upbeat sound as her career and success progressed. She’s even known for recording two songs in 1925 with Bessie Smith.
Check out Clara’s song “Ease It” for a fantastic demonstration of that bluesy moan everyone credits her for.
Don’t be fooled by her kind face and chipper name, Sippie Wallace is as blues as they come.
Her powerful voice carries the familiar melancholy of traditional blues music, while her proficient piano playing sings improvision right alongside her.
Sippie’s career hit the ground running when she moved to Chicago and released her first recording with Okeh Records in 1923. Her preceding recordings throughout the 20s earned her recognition in the blues scene, however Sippie would go on a small hiatus for the next few years after moving to Detroit in 1929 and settling in with a Baptist church.
After her come back in 1966, Sippie’s career continued successfully through the 70s and 80s, inspiring artists like Bonnie Raitt, performing with her on Late Night with David Letterman.
Alberta Hunter’s story is quite unique. Born in Memphis in 1895, she ran away to Chicago at the early age of 11, earning her keep as a boardinghouse. In her free time, she would dress herself up as an older woman and started pursuing a life of performance in nightclubs around the city. By 1915, she accomplished a position at the famous Panama Café.
The combination of Hunter’s hard work, hustle, and musical talent brought her both domestic and international fame. She recorded with Bessie Smith in 1923, managed to dodge the effects of the Great Depression by living and performing in Europe, toured with the USO during World War II and the Korean War, retired in 1954 just to come back and serve as a nurse for the next 20 years. As if that’s not impressive enough, during her nursing career, this powerhouse of a women kept recording, sharing the microphone with Lovie Austin and Jimmy Archey between 1962 and 1963. Personally, I don’t think the gal ever broke a sweat.
To say Alberta was impressive would be a sincere understatement to her craft. Alberta had an unbridled determination to survive, despite the limitation attempts of her age. She eventually was forced into retirement when she “turned 70” (she was 82 at the time.) She passed a few years later at 89 years old.
Nicknamed “Chippie” for her youthful age amongst the scene, Bertha Hill was born 1915 in North Carolina, and began her music career just a few years later in New York City circa 1919.
Bertha’s early career was influenced by big names like Ethel Waters (jazz/swing) and Ma Rainey (country blues) eventually leading her into her solo career throughout the 1920s.
Bertha’s music style reflects her influences. Her music maintains the somber disposition of blues, with a slight upbeat jazzy tempo. Her vocal melisma is present throughout her repertoire, carrying out strong notes with corresponding vibrato.
If you’re a blues lover, you’ll certainly enjoy her song “Hard Time Blues” with its guitar plucking introduction and lyrics about running away to Chicago to escape financial hardship.
The music industry houses many black female blues singers who’ve blessed the recording world with their music. We owe so much to this genre, and the monumental ladies who lended their voices to it. Some of these ladies are less known than bigger names such as Billie Holiday, for instance. But hopefully, if we keep telling their stories, they legacies will never die.
This article was written by Paige and edited by Michael.