Tuesday, February 28, 2017


For Black History Month this year, HB will re-publish some of the archival history posts that are now half a decade old themselves.  Many of the Harlem Renaissance figures are noted for their accomplishments by historians but little has been preserved uptown to mark the places they lived in or established during that remarkable decade.  

Moving to Harlem from Tennessee in 1923, the woman known as the Empress of the Blues made her presence felt from the local beer gardens to the Harlem Opera House, breaking out as an artist with the song, "Down Hearted Blues," on Columbia Records.  As the highest paid African-American performer of the time, the hard-drinking, plain-spoken Smith attracted the attention of many gentlemen, as well as a few female admirers.  After many fortunate years in the twenties, Smith's success was cut short by the Depression of the 1930's, but she headed for a rebound in her career, changing her image (trading her country blues for formal songs like Jerome Kern's "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"), recording an album and touring the country in the late years of that decade.

As fate would have it, a tragic car accident cut her comeback all too short. Bessie Smith was buried in an unmarked grave in 1937.  Over three decades later, Janis Joplin helped finance a tombstone erected on Smith's grave with the engraving, “The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.”

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