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Classic Female Blues Singers

Five Pioneering Blues Women


The decade of the 1920s was the era of the female blues singer. With origins in the worlds of vaudeville and jazz music, female blues singers like those listed below enjoyed great commercial fortune throughout the decade, selling a considerable number of records and selling out performances in clubs and theatres alike. As the pendulum turned during the 1930s and female blues singers fell out of favor with the public, the influence of these female blues pioneers can be heard in the music of artists as diverse as Odetta, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, and Bonnie Raitt.

1. Bessie Smith - "The Empress of the Blues"

The Essential Bessie Smith
Photo courtesy Price Grabber
Known as "The Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith was both the best and the most famous of the female singers of the 1920s. A strong, independent woman and a powerful vocalist that could sing in both jazz and blues styles, Smith was also the most commercially successful of the era’s singers. Her records sold tens, if not hundreds of thousands of copies – an unheard of level of sales for those days.

2. Ida Cox

Ida Cox's The Uncrowned Queen of the Blues
Photo courtesy Price Grabber
One of the most underrated female vocalists in blues history, at her commercial peak during the 1920s, Ida Cox was as popular a performer as better-known singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Cox's career only slowed down during the 1930s, rather than derailing entirely, and only health problems would force her off the road during the mid-40s. Cox's urban blues style, extravagant stage shows, and lyrics which spoke to the hard lives of her predominantly Southern female audience made her a popular and commercially successful artist.

3. Ma Rainey - "Mother of the Blues"

Heroes of the Blues: The Very Best of Ma Rainey
Photo courtesy Shout! Factory Records
Called the "Mother of the Blues" by her record label, it can be argued that Ma Rainey was the most influential of all the female blues singers. A raw, emotional vocalist with a sound firmly rooted in the country blues tradition, onstage Rainey dressed as a blues diva in sequined gowns and loads of jewelry. Her songwriting skills were brilliant in their simplicity and she was a populist lyricist whose work resounded with poor Southern African-Americans. Rainey directly influenced younger contemporaries like Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, as well as contemporary blues women like Marcia Ball and Bonnie Raitt.

4. Memphis Minnie

Memphis Minnie's Hoodoo Lady
Photo courtesy Price Grabber
During the 1930s, blues music underwent a drastic sea change. Larger-than-life female vocalists like Bessie Smith and Ida Cox found themselves on the outside as male guitarists like Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red captured the public's imagination. Memphis Minnie, though, transcended this change in the public's musical tastes, as her powerful vocals commanded authority and her six-string skills rivaled and, in many cases, surpassed those of her male contemporaries.

5. Sippie Wallace - "The Texas Nightingale"

Sippie Wallace's Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (1923-1925)
Photo courtesy Price Grabber
Jazz age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that "there are no second acts in American lives." Fitzgerald evidently never met blues singer Sippie Wallace, whose career spanned an amazing seven decades, and included two significantly creative and commercial eras. A classic female blues singer during the 1920s-era when women were the commercial movers-and-shakers in the blues world, Wallace found a second, and more influential career, during the late-1960s and the '70s, her unique voice having a major impact on a young Bonnie Raitt, among others.
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