Saturday, April 25, 2009

Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday

Today, April 26th, is the birthday of Ma Rainey. April also included the birthdays of Bessie Smith on the 15th, and Billie Holiday on the 7th.

April birthdays aren't the only thing these ladies have in common, though--through three generations, they passed a torch in Blues, and changed how American song was rendered by performers, regardless of their color. All three also have songs included in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry (these songs are starred "**" in the article below.)

“They hear it come out, but they don't know how it got there. They don't understand that's life's way of talking. You don't sing to feel better. You sing 'cause that's a way of understanding life.” ---Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, GA in 1886. She is referred to as the Mother of the Blues. She recorded over 100 songs in her lifetime for Paramount; some of her best known songs are "Yonder Comes the Blues," (with Louis Armstrong), "See See Rider**," "Black Eye Blues," "Runaway Blues" and "Sleep Talking Blues."

Rainey was performing music at age 14; upon hearing her first Blues song, she wanted to sing inthat style. In 1904, she married another performer and they toured with Rabbit Foot Minstrels as "Ma and Pa Rainey". She started recording in 1923, with a well-established following all across the South. On her records, she was backed by famous jazz artists like Louis Armstrong (who knew her from his early career), Fletcher Henderson, and Buster Bailey. The market for classic blues was beginning to dry up by 1928, thankfully, Rainey had the means to retire back home in Georgia, and open two theaters for other performers. She died of a heart attack in 1939.

Rainey was inducted in The Blues Hall of Fame in 1983. August Wilson wrote a play about her life and times entitled Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ( this is the title of one of Rainey's 100+ songs; the "Black Bottom" was a dance of her times). Rainey was also the inspiration for Shug Avery in Alice Walker's novel, "The Color Purple".

“The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.”---Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith was born April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is called the Empress of the Blues. Smith sang and danced in the streets for change with her siblings. When she turned 16, she ran away from home to become a dancer in traveling shows. She met Ma Rainey in her travels, and learned all she could from Rainey over the course of three years.

In 1923, Smith started recording for Columbia; her "Downhearted Blues"** and "Gulf Coast Blues" sold 2 million copies apiece. Smith earned $1500 a week in vaudeville live shows, making her the highest earning African American performers of her day, popular among whites and blacks. She would appear in the movie St. Louis Blues in 1929. With the arrival of Depression, what tastes remained for popular music turned to jazz; the classic blues heyday would not gain interest again for several decades. Smith recorded her last record in 1933, then retired for a few years. In 1936, she was planning a comeback, but fate had other plans. While traveling that September in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Smith had a serious car accident. Her arm was amputated that night, she passed away the next morning.

Smith was a tremendous influence on many people, including a young Texan named Janis Joplin (born 1943). Joplin used some of her own money to fund the placement of an official marker on Smith's gravesite. Smith is also the subject of Angelo Parra's play, The Devil's Music: the Life and Times of Bessie Smith."

Click here for a scene from St. Louis Blues, featuring Bessie Smith.

“I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know.”
---Billie Holiday quote

Billie Holiday was a young girl when she heard the records of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong. In later interviews, Holiday said she wanted her voice to deliver the intensity of Armstrong's horn or Bessie's voice. She is often called a jazz singer, but like many of her generation, she had to sing all styles that were popular--jazz, Blues, Broadway tunes. In her singing style and in her own lyrics, she conveyed the deepest feelings of blues.

Born in Baltimore as Eleonora Fagan in 1915, she was a child of teenage parents; her mother cleaned homes and businesses to make money. Holiday started helping her mother from age 6 onward. She didn't care for school, and ended up in reform programs more than once. Her mother relocated to New York City, and Holiday went with her.

As a teenager, Holiday left behind domestic drudgery and rumored prostitution to work in small music clubs. She combined her biological father's surname, Holiday, and paired it with a flapper movie star's first name, "Billie". John Hammond discovered her, and had her record music with Benny Goodman and his orchestra. This first record included the songs "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Riffin' the Scotch".

Before this time, mainstream singers for white audiences sang "straight", meaning they sang, but without interpretation or feeling. Holiday made waves with her deeply personal style of singing her own material and the work of others. Songs written by Holiday include "Don't Explain", "God Bless the Child", and "Lady Sings the Blues". Yes, Rainey and Smith sang with the same heart and soul in every word first, but Holiday had technology on her side: she would get more exposure through radio and television, becoming a mainstream legend for white and black audiences alike. Straight singing became a thing of the past.

In the mid-1930s, Holiday recorded the controversial song, "Strange Fruit"**, which was based on a poem about lynchings in the South that were still a regular occurrence at that time. This is one of the earliest "social conciousness" songs of the 20th century, and performing it led to a turning point in Holiday's recording career. In addition to performing jazz and blues songs, Holiday realized she could also perform moving, slow ballads. Her career continued to rise. Sadly, this is also about the time she started using heroin and drinking more, these habits would ultimately take her life.

In 1947, Holiday was featured in the film New Orleans alongside her hero, Louis Armstrong. They would also record songs together. (Armstrong had also performed on Smith's and Rainey's records on trumpet.) In her 1956 autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday gave a romanticized spin to her life story, which had been actually pretty hard, but she always appeared dignified and strong in person. Holiday died at age 44 from liver failure.

Click the following links to see Holiday performing:

Strange Fruit

New Orleans movie

My Man

KMW, April 26 2009

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