Bessie Smith was an early blues singer. She was popular in the 1920s and 30s, and was known as much for her hard-drinking, rough life as much as her music. She sang about what she knew. Bessie was an African American woman who indulged in sex and alcohol, and had a strong temper. She never gave up without a fight, either in her music or her life. Getting into a fight with Bessie wasn’t something a person wanted to do, either, because she was over six feet tall and weighed about two hundred pounds. Bessie had a history of getting into fist fights with people, male or female.
She also took off after her ex-husband with a gun when she found him cheating on her, after beating up his lover. However, Bessie herself was known for sleeping with a number of both men and women (Whitney). Musically, Bessie was not really trained. She could not read music, and relied on other musicians to write her songs down for her. She did write her own lyrics, though. She was a formidable presence on stage, able to sing loudly and strongly because of her size, and her tendency to sing in the range that was easiest for her.
In writing her music, Bessie tended to modify existing melodies, and sometimes create new ones, so that they lay well in her “good” range (Whitney). Here is an example of Bessie’s lyrics, which show her feelings about life plainly: “I ain't no high yella, I'm a deep killer brown. /I ain't gonna marry, ain't gonna settle down. /I'm gonna drink good moonshine and rub these browns down. /See that long lonesome road, Lawd you know it's gonna end,/and I'm a good woman and I can get plenty men” (Whitney). Bessie was also known as something of a racist.
While her fans were both black and white, she was rude to both whites and lighter-skinned blacks. Even at the height of her career, when she had enough money to live as she chose (even as a white person might, in the early 30s), she chose to stay on the streets and to live the life that was familiar to her. Her lyrics here show her thinking on this matter: “Mister rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind,/Mister rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind;/Give the poor man a chance, help stop these hard, hard times.
/While you're livin' in your mansion you don't know what hard times means, /While you're livin' in your mansion you don't know what hard times means; /Poor working man's wife is starving your wife is livin' like a queen” (Whitney). Ethel Waters is a blues singer who began performing later in Bessie’s career. While Bessie was primarily performing and well known during the 1920s, Ethel became better known in the 1930s (her career did officially begin in 1921, though). Ethel was specifically a different kind of blues singer than Bessie, and in fact was different from her in many ways.
Ethel is also of African American decent, but she grew up in the North and was heavily influenced by white performers. When she began performing professionally, Ethel joined a group of blacks who called themselves “Cakewalk singers,” which was distinctly different from the more traditional blues singers, like Bessie (PBS). Ethel’s acceptance of whites can be traced to what was a very rough beginning for her. She was born when her mother was only 12. Her mother had been raped by a white man, John Waters. Ethel, then, is half-white, and carries her father’s surname.
She was raised by her maternal grandmother in poverty, and began singing at age 5. Her beginnings are much more similar to Bessie’s, but what she did with herself later differs widely (Myers). Ethel worked with a number of famous jazz performers, including Duke Ellington. In addition to her singing career, Ethel was also an actress, an area of her life that eventually came to the forefront. Her singing style was not nearly as strong as Bessie’s, but she performed very theatrically and managed to capture the audience’s interest in all of her music.
This came in handy, as she continued performing through the 1960s and 70s, working at that time with Billy Graham (PBS). Ultimately, Bessie’s influence on Ethel was very indirect. Both were jazz singers in a time when African Americans were first on the rise in popularity on the stage. Bessie’s grit may have given Ethel opportunities she might not have otherwise had. In many other ways, though, the two were very different; attitude, style, and more. Dinah Washington is another important singer in this chain of history.
Her birth name was Ruth Jones, and she was born in 1924. She is significantly younger than both Ethel and Bessie, whose careers were near their peaks when she was born. Music was in Dinah’s family from the beginning. Her mother was a church pianist, and taught her to play at a young age. She was accompanying and touring by the time she was 16, and had already won prizes. However, although her initial roots were in the church, Dinah longed to work in secular music, namely jazz (Dahl).
At age 19, Dinah got her big break, singing with Lionel Hampton’s Big Band, then one of the most popular music styles. By 1945, she was recording her own solo work for the Apollo label and Mercury records, and by 1948, she was on her way to major stardom. 1959 was her biggest year, when she sang “What a Dif’rence a Day Makes” (Dahl). In her personal life, Dinah was similar to Bessie. She had many husbands, and she drank a lot. In fact, alcohol and drugs eventually killed her at the end of 1963 (Dahl). In addition, she also loved the finer things, including fur, clothes, and cars.
Her personality was known as “feisty,” and she could be snapping one minute and generous the next (Cohodas). At first glance, Christina Aguilera doesn’t look much like the other stars. For one, she isn’t black. For another, she was born after all of the other singers had died. However, it is her roots and influences that she is similar to them. Like Dinah, she is biracial, with a mom who is Irish and a father who is Ecuadorian. Her father was in the military, which meant that Christina traveled a lot as a child (Biggest Stars).
Also like the other singers, Christina was interested in singing and performing from the time she was a young girl. Her family was also musical, with her mother performing on violin and piano professionally. Christina had a brief, two-year stint on The Mickey Mouse Club when she was a child, working with other singers who later became famous, like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake (Biggest Stars). Christina’s initial music was definitely pop, with her first number one single titled “Genie in a Bottle. ” The single topped both the U. S. and UK charts in 1999.
For awhile longer, Christina continued in the pop genre, recording for the movie Mulan, and singing a new version of “Lady Marmalade” with several other female pop stars (Biggest Stars). Christina’s work eventually began to seem less significant to her, and she decided to record her 2002 album “Stripped. ” The album was the first that really showed her background and influences. Her comments about this album: “Coming off of the height of being a part of such a big pop-craze phenomenon, that imagery of that cookie-cutter sweetheart, without it being me, I just had to take it all down and get it away from me.
And that is why I actually named the album Stripped, because it is about being emotionally stripped down and pretty bare to open my soul and heart. ” This album used many different influences, including soul, R&B, rock, hip-hop and Latin (Biggest Stars). Aguilera’s influences were similar to the earlier stars mentioned. She looked to soul and R&B, both of which are styles typically recorded by African Americans. The blues aspect of R&B, in particular, is interesting to note. Aguilera was following in the footsteps of the other female jazz singers with this style.
Also, similar to Dinah Washington, Aguilera sang pop (Dinah did pop in addition to her jazz roots). In general, all four of these women have things in common, and things that are different. Each grew up under similar circumstances, often with mostly maternal influences. Most had some kind of musical background at home. Most grew up poor, and all had an early talent for music and singing. Most also had a taste for sex, drugs, and some rougher things in life, and had a hard time at one point or another. However, each was unique.
Bessie was certainly the biggest and most blunt of the group, while Christina stood of the opposite end as the “sweetheart” of pop for awhile. Christina was also different in that she was not of African American decent in any way, although Ethel was also half-white. Some of the singers, namely Dinah, had their start in gospel music, while others went straight for jazz or pop. Overall, it is interesting how strikingly similar the artists are, even though there are also very big differences in their lives and styles.
Their stories and backgrounds are surprisingly similar in some respects, but very different in others. These four women are just some of the amazing performers from the rich tapestry that is American music history. Sources Burns, Ken. “Ethel Waters. ” Jazz. Accessed on December 4, 2007. Website: http://www. pbs. org/jazz/biography/artist_id_waters_ethel. htm. “Christina Aguilera Biography. ” Biggest Stars. Accessed December 4, 2007. Website: http://www. biggeststars. com/c/christina-aguilera-biography. html. Cohodas, Nadine (2004).
Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington. Accessed December 4, 2007. Website: http://www. dinahthequeen. com/. Dahl, Bill. “Dinah Washington. ” Accessed December 4, 2007. Website: http://www. vervemusicgroup. com/dinahwashington. Myers, Aaron. “Ethel Waters. ” Accessed December 4, 2007. Website: http://www. wntb. com/blackachievers/ethlwaters/. Whitney, Ross (1995). “Reflections Of 1920's And 30's Street Life In The Music Of Bessie Smith. ” Accessed December 4, 2007. Website: http://bluesnet. hub. org/readings/bessie. html.