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Bessie Smith : The Complete Columbia Recordings

Among blues royalty, Bessie Smith was known as the Empress and Dinah Washington the Queen. But their titles should have been reversed, since Smith laid the groundwork not just for Washington but for dozens of blues, jazz and soul singers, from Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday through Joe Williams, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. (Holiday’s recording career began, in the same studio with the same sidemen, three days after Smith’s ended.) To call her influence seismic is an understatement.

In her heyday throughout the 1920s, she was the most beloved-and highest paid-black artist in America, comparable in popularity to Sinatra, Elvis or Michael Jackson. And her pivotal importance extends well beyond the 12-bar blues that were her specialty. The recording industry was in its infancy when Smith commenced making records (her work actually pre-dates electric recording by a couple of years), and her mastery at the microphone forever altered popular singing, establishing a more intimate sound that Bing Crosby, Sinatra and Holiday perfected. And she expanded the entire industry, opening up a lucrative market among black Americans. She might have, as has been widely posited, even single-handedly saved her label, the then-fledgling Columbia, from bankruptcy.

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