Women in the Blues
For some unknown reason the Blues Women singers never got the true recognition as the men did that they rightly deserved. Their songs were not as popular as the men except for a few like Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” and Bessie Smith’s “Down Hearted Blues.” The majority of the women did not receive celebrated status as the men did.
The ladies that sang and played the blues were as talented as the men were and in several cases they excelled their male counterpart. Memphis Minnie McCoy could play the guitar better than most men and often challenged them and won. With the women, their blues was the story of their lives as they had lived it.”Sippie” Wallace sang about her drug and alcohol addictions. Lucille Bogan’s lyrics were about prostitution and her craving for sex. Ida Cox reveals her weakness for whiskey, moonshine and sex and Alberta Hunter exposes herself as a lesbian. And so many more had to resort to prostitution, whiskey, drugs, cocaine and cigarettes to ease the pain of their blues. But, in spite of it all, there are those whose life story will forever endure.
Gertrude `Ma’ Rainey considered one of the greatest blues women in her time. Her country style blues singing or “Lawd, I’m down Wid de Blues,” was a big hit for Paramount Records. This was among the first to be identified as a “race” label, which was what black recording artists on black labels were called “Ma” Rainey. Along with blues singers, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Sara Martin, Clara Smith and a few others were among the first to develop the classic blues style. “Ma” Rainey’s 1925 hit recording of “Cell Bound Blues,” with her own Georgia Jazz Band is an excellent example. This was followed in 1926 with “Jealous Hearted Blues,” with the Fletcher Henderson Band. “See See Rider,” “Bo-Weavil Blues,” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” were also among her hits for Paramount Records
She also sang about topics that were commonplace at the time. “Chain Gang Blues,” talks about breaking the law and going to jail. “Moonshine Blues,” and “Dead Drunk Blues,” were about intoxication. Superstition was revealed in “Wringing and Twisting the Blues.” “Hustlin’ Blues,” was about prostitution.
“Ma” Rainey labeled as the “Mother of the Blues,” was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. At the age of 18 she married William “Pa” Rainey and together they performed with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. In 1905, her blues singing was the highlight of the show. She later became the first black female to be associated with the blues. It was “Ma” Rainey who discovered that Bessie Smith had talent and look Bessie under wing. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey died of a heart attack on December 22, 1939.
For the major part, blues women were the classic singers. The lyrics were invariably taken from a woman’s viewpoint. On the other hand, men ruled in the country blues with two outstanding exceptions, they were; Ida May Mack and Bessie Tucker. It was however, the black female classic blues singers namely, “Ma” Rainey, Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Chippie Hill to mention a few that brought blues to public notice in the United States. Bessie Tucker sang songs about prison life. Lucille Bogan sang “Low down Blues” about prostitution and lesbians. Memphis Minnie McCoy sang “The Memphis Minnie-Jitis Blues,” that had reference to her illness. Later with her third husband Earnest Lawler backing her on guitar recorded “me and My Chauffer Blues” which became one of her biggest hits. It was women like these that took the blues out of the south and introduced it to the northern states, namely, Kansas City, Chicago and New York
The turn of the century witnessed some major changes in the music industry. In 1900, the “Cake Walk” became the most popular dance. Ragtime jazz was heard throughout the United States in 1901. The Carl Lindstrom Company in Berlin, Germany, in 1904 produced the phonograph and phonograph records. 1912 was the year that Leroy “Lasses” White’s “Nigger Blues,” the “Dallas Blues” by Hart Wand and Lloyd Garrett and W. C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” had been published. New Orleans was hearing classic jazz in 1915, and in 1916, jazz took over in the United States. Europe welcomed the arrival of jazz in 1919.
Mamie Smith at the age of 37 made her record debut on St. Valentine’s Day in 1920 when she recorded “That Thing Called Love,” and “You Can’t ‘Keep a Good Man Down.” The record did not sell as much as was expected, but enough to bring Mamie back to the studio in the summer of that year. With the band backing of her five-piece Jazz Hounds, she recorded “Crazy Blues,” a composition by Perry Bradford on Okeh Records. In the first month of its release in November, the record sold 75,000 copies. With the success of “Crazy Blues,” Mamie Smith was responsible for the blues craze in 1921. The ‘colored’ market was discovered and record companies were recording as many black artists as they could get their hands on. By 1927, about five hundred records by black talents were released annually
Attractive Mamie paved the way for other black singers such as. Edith Wilson, Viola McCoy, Sara Martin, Clara Smith and Rosa Henderson who began recording what was now called ‘race’ records because sales and promotion was mainly directed to the black people. The success of “Crazy Blues” made a lot of money for Mamie and Perry Bradford who promoted the record. It must be noted however, that Mamie Smith was not the first black singer to record. There were others that preceded her. But, her records were the first to be sold to the black sales market.
Marne Smith was born in poverty on May 26, 1883, in Cincinnati, Ohio. When she acquired the wealth on her “Crazy Blues” royalties, she lived lavishly, buying expensive cars, furniture, the must expensive fashioned designs and a steady flow of lovers that kept her sexually occupied. She continued this life style until the depression.
In 1923, she recorded her last hit record. “You’ve Got to See Mama Every Night (Or You Won’t See Mama At All).” Eventually, her money ran out and she round herself broke again. On September 16, 1946, Mamie Smith died in New York at the age of 63, penniless.
Bessie Smith began her musical career as a singer and dancer in 1912 with the Moses Stokes Minstrel Show. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was with that same traveling troupe and had recognized the potential talents of Bessie and offered re help her along in show business. Bessie appreciated and accepted whatever assistance she could get, especially since it was free and coming from “Ma” Rainey who was the most popular blues singer in the south. Later, Bessie joined another touring show but was kicked out of the chorus line because she was too black. However, Park’s Big Revue took her on in 1914. Within a short time, Bessie was the hottest attraction in the south.
Bessie Smith grew up in poverty with five brothers and sisters in Chattanooga, Tennessee where she was born in a small ramshackle cabin in 1894. Both of her parents died when she was eight years old. Growing up without parental guidance, she look to the streets for means of support. She sang and danced on busy street corners where people would throw a nickel or a dime at her. At a very early age she was introduced to a taste of liquor and sex and liked them both. They soon became a habit. Bessie learned the street language as rough as it was and also how to physically defend herself.
By the time she was 16, “Ma” Rainey with her Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels took Bessie along to get additional experience and teach her how to sing with feeling and emotion. It wasn’t long afterwards that Bessie left “Ma” Rainey and branched out on her own. She joined other touring groups working the black vaudeville circuit and in saloons and local theaters.
During all this exposure, Bessie was listening to the great blues singers. Besides “Ma” Rainey, there was Mamie Smith’s (no relation) hit record of “Crazy Blues.” Bessie was attracting attention with the public and several important ears heard her. Pianist and songwriter Clarence Williams and producer Frank Walker of New York were counted among those who claimed to have discovered her. During the decade of the 1920s, Bessie recorded with the jazz giants of that era namely, Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, James P. Johnson and Don Redman.
On February 16, 1923, Frank Walker took Bessie Smith to Columbia Record Company to record tier first record, “Down Hearted Blues” and “Gulf Coast Blues,” with Clarence Williams on piano. Within six months after its release to the public, the record sold 780,000 copies. Sales were not only sold to the blacks in the south but northern whites were buying records. Bessie’s popularity grew so rapidly that people, both blacks and whites, would stand in line to see her perform. She was officially crowned by the public as the “Empress of the Blues.”
In September 1923, she was called in to record “Jailhouse Blues” that turned out to be another hit. Among the classic blues singers, “Ma” Rainey, Mamie Smith, Sara Martin, Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, Clara Smith and a few others, Bessie was considered the best of them all. During her ten-year recording career with Columbia Records with whom she had gotten out of bankruptcy with her “Down Hearted Blues.” Bessie made an enormous amount of money. But she never forgot what it was like to be poor, nor did she forget where she came from. Bessie was living high. Buying everything she wanted without concern of the cost. She drank heavily and engaged in sex with both men and women. Bessie was rough, tough and often crude and irresponsible. Yet, at the same time she was passionate, generous and showed kindness to those in need.
She made one big mistake however, she entrusted her money management to her husband Jack McGee, an ex-policeman who in turn kept his pockets full and used Bessie’s money to support and finance the career of his show-girl mistress. By the end of the 1920s, the blues lost its public appeal. Records were not selling. Theaters were closing down and those that remained open were not using stage shows. Bessie was back where she started. She was poor again. She had to sing at house parties to raise money to pay the rent and buy food. Her husband took off with his mistress. All the people she helped in their time of need were not there for her when she needed them. The last record Bessie recorded was in 1919. It was, oddly enough, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” it was the story of her life.
At the beginning of the 1930s, Bessie Smith made a successful comeback. Connie’s Inn, a nightclub in Harlem, New York and the Wander Inn Cafe in Philadelphia, featured Bessie in a new musical revue. Again the public couldn’t get enough of her. Bessie’s spirits were lifted and she began to make lots of money again. Unfortunately, in the zenith of her successful return to the blues, Bessie was killed in a car accident on Highway 61, near Clarksdale, Mississippi on September 26. l937. Richard Morgan, her latest lover and driver of her new Packard, struck an oncoming truck causing the car to turn over and sever Bessie’s arm at the elbow.
A passing motorist, who happened to be a white physician from Memphis, stopped his car to render assistance to Bessie. Dr. Hugh Smith had called for an ambulance to take Bessie to the hospital. Twenty minutes or thereabouts later with no ambulance in sight, Dr. Smith put Bessie in his car to drive her to the hospital himself. However, a second accident occurred at the scene when a speeding car with a young intoxicated couple smashed into the rear of the doctor’s car which in turn smashed into Bessie’s Packard and overturned the doctor’s car.
Finally, two ambulances arrived, one that the doctor called for and the other that the truck driver requested when he got to the nearest telephone. One ambulance took the white couple to the white hospital nearby and the other ambulance took Bessie to the hospital for the blacks about a quarter pf a mile further away. It made no difference which hospital she went to, with her abundant loss of blood she died on the way to the hospital. She was 53 years old. The epitaph on her gravestone read: “The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.”
Many blues women from the early 1920s came from the southern or Midwestern states. There was Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, born in Athens, Georgia; Mamie Smith was from Cincinnati. Ohio, Memphis Minnie McCoy, from Louisiana, Victoria Spivey, from Texas, Ida Cox from Knoxville and Bessie Smith from Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Memphis Minnie McCoy was born Lizzie Douglas on June 3, 1896 in Algiers, Louisiana, one of 13 children. By the time she was eight years old she was singing in the street in Memphis trying to earn money to live on. She identified herself as Kid Douglas. When she was in her early teens, she was touring with the Ringling Brothers Circus for a short time. Afterwards, she worked as a prostitute earning two dollars a trick to earn extra money, Minnie took up guitar playing and learned to play it well. Big Bill Broonzy tells the story how she heal both him and Tampa. Red in a guitar contest. He said “she way the hint woman guitarist he ever heard.” In Memphis she married her first husband Joe McCoy, a Mississippi blues guitarist and mandolin player. At that time she changed her name to Memphis Minnie. She chose that name because that was the city where site got her first big break in music. Most of her blues related to topical events of the day or about her personal life. “Hustlin’ Woman Blues” tells about her life as a prostitute.
Her best selling record was “Bumble Bee” in 1930 on the Vocalion label. Her next record, “Memphis Minnie-Jitis Blues” makes reference to an ailment she had at the time. In 1931, she and her husband,. Joe McCoy recorded an excellent guitar duet called “Let’s Go to Town.” In 1935 with her second husband guitarist “Casey Bill” Weldon, she recorded the “Joe Louis Strut.” Following this in 1941 was another recording with her third husband, blues guitarist Ernest ‘Lil Son’ Lawler, “Me and My Chauffer Blues” on the Okeh label.
Memphis Minnie was among one of the greatest and most powerful blues women singers of all time. During the midst of her successful career she augmented her band as did Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy by adding an extra guitar, clarinet and trumpet. Minnie’s health was failing and she eventually died in a Memphis nursing home on August 6, 1973. She was 77 years old.
Memphis, Tennessee, the city of the blues, welcomed into the world on September 28, 1935, Cora Walton. When she was l8 years old, she married Robert Taylor and she became know as Koko Taylor. In 1965, Willie Dixon, a talent scout for the Chess label heard Koko sing and produced her first blues session which turned out to be a million record seller, “Wang Dang Doodle.” From then on Ms. Taylor was crowned “Queen of the Blues.”
Prior to her success, she had moved to Chicago in 1935 and was singing with the Junior Wells Band in local clubs. She stayed on with the Wells Band along with Buddy Guy until she got that big break with Willie Dixon. In 1975, Koko was under contract with Alligator Records and released her first record for that label, “Force of Nature.” With the success of that session, she was invited to appear on several talk shows including David Letterman’s show. Paul Shaffer, music director for the Letterman show employed Koko to sing on his album, “Coast to Coast.” This was followed by B.B. King’s request for her to appear on his album, “Blues Summit.” Koko’s greatest thrill came on March 3, 1993, when Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago presented her with a “Legend or the Year’ award and officially declared that date as ”Koko Taylor Day.” Koko is still recording and every one of her releases proves that she is the “Queen of the Blues.
During the decade of the 1920s, it was the women singers that dominated the early blues recordings. Many or them came from the black vaudeville houses that provided employment for these artists. Another source of exposure for their talents was with the Theater Owner’s Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) where they would perform on stage in small towns and metropolitan cities throughout the country. The 1920 were good years for the black professional performers. Some were on Broadway in New York City, while others toured Europe with an all-black show. Then there were those that were fortunate to be heard by a record talent scout or a professional songwriter who had connections with a record company to bring them into a studio for a record session.
In 1920, record promoter and songwriter Perry Bradford was instrumental in paving the way for black singers to record. He took Mamie Smith into a studio and recorded one of his songs called “Crazy Blues” on the Okeh label. The record was an immediate success that brought in fortunes for both Smith and Bradford. Quick to jump on the bandwagon on Smith’s successful record, other labels started recording the black blues singers. Columbia Records in 1923 recorded Bessie Smith’s “Down Hearted Blues” backed with “Gulf Coast Blues,” and Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey recorded “Bo-Weavil Blues” and “Moonshine Blues” for the Paramount label in the same year.
Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith and “Ma” Rainey were the first to he identified as the “classic blues singers'”. The 1920s brought on additional black ladies that sang the blues, among them were Trixie Smith from Atlanta. Georgia, whose record “Trixie’s Blues” for the black Swan label in 1922. created such a stir that she, was called in for more sessions. The sides were; “My Man Rocks Me,” “Railroad Blues,” “Mining Camp Blues,” And “Freight Train Blues.”
Sara Martin, known for her showmanship and ability to please an audience, recorded her first record for the Okeh label in 1922 that became an outstanding hit. “Sugar Blues” was such a classic example of her talents that trumpeter Clyde McCoy used that song as his big band theme in the 1930s. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, she continued to record hits such as, “Joe Turner Blues,” “Michigan Water Blues,” “Blind Man Blues,” “Hesitation Blues,” and “Tony Jackson Blues.” In 1928, Sara retired from the music profession and devoted her time to church activities.
Probably one of the most underrated blues singers was Ida Cox, born on February 25, 1896 in Toccoa, Georgia. By the time she was 14 years old she was singing in a minstrel show and was performing in theaters in her hometown. In 1923, Paramount Records recorded several hits with Ida, some of them were, “Graveyard Dreams Blues,” “Any Women’s Blues,” “Lawdy Lawdy Blues,” “I’ve Got the Blues for Rampart Street,” “Coffin Blues,” and “Marble Stone Blues.
Although Ida was an exceptionally good singer with accurate voice control, she would always be billed as the “Uncrowned Queen of the Blues.” The explanation some musicians who had worked with Ida said that she was in the same time period of three black singers that have captured the hearts the public, namely, ‘Ma’ Rainey. Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith, whose recordings have by far surpassed Ida’s. Then again, Cox’s music was on the morbid side. The lyrics that tell about the graveyard, the coffin, the death letter, the marble stone and the bone orchard, even her biggest hit “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” appeal only to the women who understood the lyrics. In 1944, Ida was stricken with a stroke that put her into retirement until 1961 when she was asked to do a record session with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. Ida Cox died of cancer on November 10, 1967 in Knoxville, Tennessee at the age of 71. It was the outstanding black blues singers as ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith., Mamie Smith and Ida Cox who had fused the bond between jazz and the blues in the 1920s.
Texas born Beulah “Sippie” Wallace enjoyed her hits of “Shorty George” and “Up the Country Blues” on the Okeh label in 1923 and then again in 1926 with “Special Delivery Blues” with Louis Armstrong accompanying her on trumpet. The success of these records was short lived. “Sippie” survived by playing gigs around town. Then in 1960 she found fame again as the featured artist on the Folk Festival Circuit where she remained until her death in 1986.
Victoria Spivey was born on October 15, 1906 in Houston,. Texas. She came from a musical family whose father was the leader of a string band in Houston, Texas. By the time she was 12 years old she was singing and playing piano at the Lincoln Theater in Dallas. As she got a little older she left Texas and traveled north to St. Louis. An agent for the Okeh Record Company heard her and contracted her to a session in 1926. The sides she recorded were; “Black Stake Blues” and “Deep Sea Diver.” The record sales were high and in 1927 she recorded “T.B. Blues,” a song about tuberculosis and “Dope Head Blues” relating to the cocaine users with guitarist Lonnie Johnson accompanying her. Victoria went on to do more recordings with the accompaniment of the musical giants as King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Henry “Red” Allen. Her career carried her through the 1930s and 1940s. She worked the night dub circuit and several tours throughout the country during the 1950s. Then in the 1960s, her fame was renewed again during the blues revival. She continued on singing and playing her piano up to the time of her demise. Victoria died on October 3, 1976. She was 70 years old.
Lucille Hogan, born in Birmingham, Alabama, was considered to have the most scurrilous lyrics of all the blues singers in her day. She was an outspoken woman and had the backing of the city’s black mob. Her robust blues were about prostitution, lesbians, drugs and alcohol. On stage she would set the mood for her performance, so that the audience would know what to expect. Her opening dialogue was; “I got somethin’ ‘tween my legs could make a dead man come.’ Then she followed this line with, “I fucked all night and all the night before, baby, and I feel just like I want to fuck some more.
From 1927 to 1930, Lucille was in Chicago recording for Paramount Records. The session produced “Alley Boogie,” “Women Don’t Need No Men” and “B.D. (meaning bull dvke) Women’s Blues,” both songs were about lesbians. Then in 1935, her uncensored version of “Shave `Ern Dry” was so filthy even for a ‘race’ record that it could only be sold as under-the-counter release using a pseudonym.. Lucille also made records using the name Bessie Jackson, during her recording sessions from 1933 to 1935, She was not alone however in this rough and tough image that she portrayed. There were ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith and Victoria Spivey who also sang about murder, rape, prostitution, drugs, alcoholism and lesbians. In 1936, Lucille Bogan was killed by an automobile in the streets of Los Angeles.
The 1920s heard other ladies that sang the blues, there were; Lovie Austin, in addition to her singing she played piano with her Blues Serenaders and often backed up Ida Cox and ‘Ma’ Rainey on their record dates. Lucille Hegamin was a favorite with her hit record, “Arkansas Blues.” “Down Home Blues,” was a classic for Ethel Waters.
Dallas, Texas gave us Lillian Glinn’s version of “Doggin; Me Blues” and “Brown Skin Blues.” Bessie Tucker’s robust songs of “Ride and Shine on the Dummy Line” and a prison blues called “Key to the Bushes.” Alberta Brown from New Orleans, Birmingham’s Bertha Ross and Cleo Gibson of Atlanta provided some obscure records. Helen Humes, although she later became associated as a jazz singer with Count Basie, was a teenage blues singer in 1927 Edith Wilson, Mary Stafford, Rosetta Crawford, Ilocial Thomas and Addis (Sweet Pe-ase) Spivey, Victoria’s younger sister gave us memorable blues in the 1920s.
The 1930s came in with another wave of blues singers. Ivy Anderson, Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald. Teddy Grace, Alberta Hunter and Georgia White continued to keep the blues alive with such outstanding hits as “Trouble in Mind,” “Dupree Blues,” “Your Worries ain’t Like Mine,”I’ll Keep Sitting On It,” and “Daddy Let Me Lay It On You.” The 1930s also saw the death of some of the greats. Clara Smith and Lucille Bogan in 1935, Bessie Smith in 1937, and 1939 was the end for Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey.
Some of the blues women who survived the 1920s and 1930s began to include pop ballads along with the blues in their repertoire in the 1940s. Mamie Smith was among them until her death in 1946. Lil Green, the Mississippi born sweetheart, started the 1940s with a tremendous success with “Romance in the Dark.” She continued her success with another hit written by Joe McCoy, Memphis Minnie’s first husband called “Why Don’t You Do Right-Like Some Other Men Do?” The following year the same song became a bigger hit with Peggy Lee’s version with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Lil went on to record for Victor”Atlantic and Aladdin Records. She toured the country with musicians like Big Bill Broonzy, Ramon Knowling, Henry Simeone, and Clyde Bernhardt and with the Tim Bradshaw Band. Lil was a religious woman who didn’t drink or smoke. But somehow, she was implicated in a juke joint murder and had to do some time in prison. At the age of 35, she died in Chicago in 1954.
The 1940s heard the sounds of Sister Rosetta Tharpe who combined her gospels and blues singing with the Lucky Millinder’s Band. Muriel Nicholls (Wee Bea Booze) made a cover record of ‘Ma’ Rainey’s 1924 hit, “See See Rider.” Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughan. Camille Howard, Una Mac Carlisle, Savannah Churchill and Dinah Washington joined the ranks of female performers in the 1940s. Their library included ballads, rhythm and blues and jazz. This began to have more of an appeal to the audience than just the blues alone.
Willie Mae (Big Mama) Thornton was born on December 11, 1926 in Montgomery, Alabama. 1n 1941 at the age of 14, she left home to go on the road with the Hot Harlem Revue. She taught herself how to play the drums and harmonica and she played them well enough to be featured as an instrumentalist on stage. In 1953, Big Mania Thornton recorded “Hound Dog” on the Peacock label with band leader Johnny Otis. It was an immediate success hitting the number one spot on the rhythm and blues charts. In 1956, Elvis Presley made a cover record with “Hound Dog” that became an international sensation. Thornton was a hard belting blues singer, similar to her idol Memphis Minnie McCoy. She toured throughout Europe and the United States until her demise on April 25, 1984. She was 58 years old.
Alberta Hunter was born on April 1, 1895 in Memphis, Tennessee. As early as 1912 she was singing in nightclubs in Chicago. In 1921 she wrote and recorded her first song, “Down Hearted Blues.” Two years later that song became Bessie Smith’s number one hit. On her recording sessions Alberta used the best musicians available, Fletcher Henderson, Eubie Blake, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Sidney Bechet. She was a talented songwriter and recorded rnost of her own songs. “Chirping the Blues,” “Down South Blues,” “Experience Blues” and “My Castle’s Rockin’.” She recorded with several record companies at the same time using a different name for each label. She was Alberta Prime on the Biltmore label, on Gennett Records she was Josephine Beatty and for the Okeh, Victor and Columbia labels she used her own name.
She was also very active in stage shows. She replaced Bessie Smith in the “How Come?” revue of 1921 and also starred in “Showboat” with Paul Robeson at the London Palladium in 1928-29. While performing iii the Dreamland Café on South State Street in Chicago, she was billed as the “Sweetheart of Dreamland.” She continued to perform until the time of her death on October 17, 1984, in Roosevelt, New York. She was 89 years old.
Ruth Weston, better known as Ruth Brown was born on January l2, 1928 in Portsmouth, Virginia. In 1945, when she was 17 years old she left home to join the Lucky Millinger’s Orchestra. She stayed with the band for one month and decided to go out on her own as a solo artist. It was a good move for her. In 1950 Atlantic Records released her first big hit, “Teardrops in My Eyes.” She became the top female rhythm and blues (R&B) singer. She continued to release hit after hit for the label, “Marna He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” “Lucky Lips,” “So Long,” “Am I Making the Same Mistake Again,” and ‘It’s A Good Day for the Blues.”
Ruth Brown has done it all. She was named “Miss Rhythm,” won a Tony award for her performance in “Black and Blue” on the Broadway stage in New York City. She received a Grammy for her “Blues on Broadway” album. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1999 she was hospitalized for cancer and the operation proved successful. In 2003, at the age of 75, she was still singing the music she loves.
Bonnie Raitt, Hannah Sylvester, Viola Wells. Valerie Wellington. Lynn White, Denise LaSalle, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Margie Evans and Elizabeth Cotton were also among the great ladies or the blues. They sang about anxieties, hopes, desires and frustrations. They sang about oppression, depression and sexual behavior. They sang about gambling, drinking, prostitution and murder. And as they were traveling from state to state with the “Medicine Show” or the vaudeville circuit, they were spreading the blues to the public. They were the women who were called the classic blues singers.