Bessie Smith occupies a unique place in the history of American music. She was one of the first undisputed artists to come from the American vernacular tradition of the twentieth century, and as a woman, she was a figure of extraordinary power. She organized and led her own touring companies, wrote some of her repertoire, controlled her many relationships (romantic and otherwise), and even negotiated her own contracts. This type of agency was virtually unheard of in the popular music industry during the first half of the century, and Smith is often cited as a major influence on artists who sought to manage their work and reputation. Her musical output comprises a long series of recordings done between 1923 and 1933, all of which feature her vocal range, musical ability, and emotional power. Her band included some of the best black musicians of the day.
In Experiencing Bessie Smith, John Clark chronicles Bessie Smith’s vital contribution to and influence on music, the music industry, and the recording industry. While her recording career lasted only a decade, she toured long before setting her music to vinyl, with much of her early career amply documented. Singers from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin were influenced by her work, and both musicians and music lovers today continue to be entranced by her unmistakable style.