Music: Miss Bessie's Blues

The first time John Hammond heard Bessie Smith sing was in October 1927 at the Alhambra Theater in Harlem. He was 16, and, at his parents' insistence he went to the 6 o'clock show and got home early. "Bessie didn't mess with the mike," Hammond recalls. "She was just up there belting. She had come up before the days of the microphone, and so she had developed a pair of pipes you couldn't believe. Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey—the ones that came after her—all had small voices. You couldn't hear them without a mike. But Bessie had power."

Bessie had a lot...

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