There are so many valuable contributions from musicians and performers that bring joy to our lives and feed our musical souls. While we can’t know every artist in the history of music, there are many who are not household names, but should be! In honor of Black History Month, we’re sharing the stories of three powerful female trailblazers—Florence Price, Mamie Smith and Sister Rosetta Tharpe—who by the nature of discrimination toward their race and gender, haven’t reached the echelons of notoriety their musical genius deserves. Learn and listen below!
Symphony Sounds—Florence Price
With a catalog of more than 300 classical music compositions, including four symphonies, four concertos, choral works, art songs, and music for chamber and solo instruments, the artistry and importance of Florence (née Smith) Price has only recently been recognized and rediscovered—a treasure trove of once-lost manuscripts was found during an old home renovation. The Little Rock Arkansan was born in 1887 and remarkably gave her first piano performance at the age of four and published her first composition at age of 11. The future virtuoso graduated as the valedictorian of her high school at age 14 and then went on to graduate with honors from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, with a double major in organ performance and music education. Although the Conservatory was one of the few institutions to admit Black students, Price initially tried passing as Mexican in order to avoid the prejudice of the time. After graduation, Price served as head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college, but eventually moved back to Little Rock to become a wife and mother; finding employment was difficult in her home city that had become increasingly segregated and rife with dangerous racial tensions.
The family moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration, where Price began a fulfilling period of composing and influence during the Chicago Black Renaissance, joining luminary circles including fellow composer Margaret Bonds, contralto Marian Anderson and writer Langston Hughes, among others. An important early success came in 1930 at the twelfth annual convention of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), when Bonds premiered Price’s “Fantasie Negre;” she later won first prize for her Symphony No. 1 in E minor
and third prize for her Piano Sonata at the Wanamaker Foundation Awards in 1932. Her symphony caught the attention of conductor Frederick Stock who performed the piece with the Chicago Symphony in 1933, making Price the first woman of color to have her composition played by a major U.S. orchestra. Subsequent performances of her music occurred at the Chicago’s World Fair, followed by the Works Progress Administration Symphony Orchestra of Detroit, the Chicago Women’s Symphony, and the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago. In 1940, Price was honored and inducted into ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) for her music. Price’s music beautifully balances western classical music traditions and Romantic period influences, yet honors her southern roots with inflections and themes from African American folk songs and rhythms. Price is quoted as saying, “To begin with I have two handicaps, that of sex and race. I am a woman and I have negro blood in my veins.” Although not commonly included in the classical canon since her death in 1953, Price’s music is having a renaissance of its own as symphonies worldwide perform her work and uplift her legacy as a trailblazing influencer for female composers.
Birth of the Blues—Mamie Smith
Can you name the first Black singer to ever record a blues song? Mamie Smith did so and helped popularize the Blues genre and expand the record industry with phonographs appealing to Black communities. Up to that time, juke joint songs and melodies were only recorded by white artists in order to appeal to record-buying white audiences, under the bigoted belief that people of color would not buy phonographs made by artists of their own race. The Cincinnati songstress changed that. Recorded on August 10, 1920, on OKeh records by Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds band, Crazy Blues was the first record to be specifically
marketed to Black listeners, selling 75,000 copies in the first month and more than one million copies that year. The recording not only skyrocketed her to stardom but opened the door for other Black performers like Ma Rainey and Louis Armstrong to record. Crazy Blues’ ultimate success also helped create a new industry for what were then called “race records”—popular between the 1920s to the 1940s, the 78-rpm phonographs featured Black artists and musicians performing blues, jazz and gospel music, and also comedy sketches.
Born in 1891, Smith (née Robinson) was an American vaudeville singer, dancer, pianist and actress who began her performance career as a 10-year old touring with a white act before singing in Harlem clubs. The success of her records as well as the rise of radio propelled her fame, even among white audiences, to sold out shows across the United States and tours in Europe to even a few movie appearances. With her unusual singing style to bend and stretch notes and unique interpretations of songs, Smith became a wealthy superstar, giving her fans a fantastic spectacle filled not only by her music but also her personality wearing the top fashions and bejeweled in diamonds and pearls. Smith gave her fans amazing performances because “these thousands of people who come to hear me at my concerts, expect much, and I do not intend that they shall be disappointed.” She thrilled audiences with songs including “That thing called love” and “You can’t keep a good man down.” Unfortunately, the stock market crash of 1929 left her dependent on the charity of friends and she died penniless in 1946. Although her name is not popularly known, Smith’s influence broke barriers, paving the way for Black artists to enter the mainstream recording industry and perform for white audiences. The historical significance of Smith’s Crazy Blues is forever marked with the honor she deserves, being inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame in 1994 and selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2005.
A Powerful Force of Nature—Sister Rosetta Tharpe
The musical prowess of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, among a host of other music legends current and past, all attribute being influenced by the same performer—Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Bob Dylan called her a “powerful force of nature.” Considered the “Godmother of Rock & Roll,” her incredible blend of gospel music and upbeat electric guitar crafted a new genre of music that has evolved over the decades into a worldwide sensation. Tharpe was a crossover artist, singing gospel tunes to secular audiences, with a unique finger picking style that added a contrasting melody line to her raucous vocals. Born Rosetta Nubin in 1915 to cotton pickers in Arkansas, the child prodigy picked up the guitar at age four and was performing alongside her mother’s traveling evangelical troupe across the South by age six. Trailblazing and gaining notoriety as a prominent Black female guitarist in a league all by herself, literally and figuratively, Tharpe moved to Chicago and later to New York as her solo career started to take root.
Tharpe’s signature performance style began to fuse gospel, rhythm and blues and the improvisation swing of New Orleans jazz when she began performing at the iconic Cotton Club. The white audiences enthusiastically wanted more of the sermon-swinging, Gibson-guitar-slinging performer, which eventually earned her second billing to headliners Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Tharpe’s unique style hit the New York club circuit, including engagements at the Paramount with Count Basie, the Apollo with Fats Waller, and at Carnegie Hall for the historic “From Spirituals to Swing” concert series, which were performed purposefully in front of an integrated audience. Her first recordings with Decca in 1938 netted four instant Gospel hits, including “Rock Me,” one of Elvis Presley’s favorites. The impact of these records were
significant for her gospel fan base as well as her growing white audience. Despite her notoriety, institutional racism made touring difficult as hotels and restaurants were segregated, forcing Tharpe to eat and sleep on buses. Other key recordings by Tharpe include “Strange Things Happening Everyday,” “Up Above my Head” and “This Train.” Energetic, spirited and unapologetic, the thrice-divorced, Queer, Black rockstar brought sacred music into the mainstream and was a pioneer for gospel, jazz and rock artists. Finally recognized as an influencer, Tharpe was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, which was 50 years after her death. When asked about her music and rock and roll, she was reported as saying, “Oh, these kids and rock and roll—this is just sped up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that forever.”
Florence Price, Mamie Smith and Sister Rosetta Tharpe each in their own way changed the music industry for the better. All three artists were ahead of their time, breaking boundaries for gender and race and making the world take notice at the heights of their careers. Their artistry and impact should never again be forgotten, but celebrated and honored as music pioneers.