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Of all the classic female blues singers of the 1920s, Bessie Smith most articulately and convincingly demonstrated the power of the blues. A large woman who used every bit of her size to create the passion that flowed through her songs, Smith first recorded in 1923, launching a blues career that would have no parallel during the classic blues era. From 1923 to 1933, Smith recorded more than 150 songs for Columbia Records. Many of them -- "Down Hearted Blues," "'Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do," "Back Water Blues," "Poor Man's Blues," "Nobody Knows When You're Down and Out" -- are central to the blues canon. Smith's version of the W.C. Handy hit "St. Louis Blues" includes backing by Louis Armstrong and a jazz band. The track not only reveals how closely allied jazz and blues were in the 1920s, but also demonstrates the artistic genius of the two greatest African-American artists of the decade and, arguably, the century. Bessie Smith continued to record and perform well into the 1930s, despite a Depression-ravaged "race" records market. She was killed in 1935 in an automobile accident in Clarksdale, Mississippi, ending a career that defined the female blues tradition.

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