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Celebrating 100 years of the music of Bessie Smith

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On this day, 100 years ago, Columbia Records held a recording session with a singer named Bessie Smith. The country at large didn't know her then, but soon found out because she was launching a career as one of the most important blues singers ever. She began with one of the biggest hits of 1923.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN HEARTED BLUES")

BESSIE SMITH: (Singing) Gee, but it's hard to love someone when that someone don't love you. I'm so disgusted - heartbroken too. I've got those down hearted blues.

INSKEEP: She just sang the name of the song there - "Down Hearted Blues."

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Before this, Smith had amassed a sizable following, playing shows along railroad lines in the East Coast and the South. But it wasn't until Columbia Records came calling that her influence went nationwide. "Down Hearted Blues" went on to sell 2 million copies.

INSKEEP: And unlike many recording artists, Bessie Smith got paid. Dee Rees directed the biopic "Bessie" for HBO. And she talked with NPR about how rare that was for a Black woman in the 1920s.

DEE REES: No matter what you did, whether you were washing clothes or cleaning somebody's house or doing music, the terms were exploitive. So in that time, she was able to kind of demand what she was worth and able to organize herself in such a way that she was able to sing what she wants to sing and go on tour.

INSKEEP: And she even bought her own luxury railroad cars so she and her touring ensemble could travel in style.

KHALID: Bessie Smith's career, though, was short-lived - changing tastes and the 1929 stock market crash derailed her career. In this archival recording, Columbia Records producer John Hammond remembers trying to help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN HAMMOND: When the Depression came, that wiped out the record business as we had known it. So in 1932, I went down to Philadelphia, where she was working as a hostess in a speakeasy, and I tried to persuade her that she should record. And she said, well, John, I just want you to know that these are hard times, and nobody wants to hear no blues.

KHALID: Bessie Smith died in 1937, and even though she'd lived a lavish lifestyle, her gravesite was unusually spare, with an unmarked tombstone.

INSKEEP: Until one of her admirers in later days, Janis Joplin, helped to pay to replace it. Bessie Smith's new epitaph read, the greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN HEARTED BLUES")

SMITH: (Singing) It may be a month or two. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.