Before the Great Depression, Bessie was the highest-paid black entertainer in the world, collecting as much as two thousand dollars a week to sing such songs as her own, “Nobody Knows you When You’re Down and Out,” “Empty Bed Blues,” and “Backwater Blues,” accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, including Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson, and Benny Goodman.
Because of her early stage experience, Bessie’s repertoire was extensive by the time she made her first record in 1923. She primarily specialized in blues numbers, singing more by far than any female vocalist of the day. She also performed country blues, vaudeville, and jazz tunes in a show that completely captivated her audiences.
“Downhearted Blues” (b/w “Gulf Coast Blues”), Bessie’s recording debut on Columbia (Race) Records, was an immediate hit when it was released in 1923 selling more than 750,000 copies that year. Throughout the 1920’s, Bessie recorded with many of the great Jazz musicians of that era, including Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redmond and Louis Armstrong. Her rendition of “St. Louis blues” with Armstrong is considered by most critics to be one of the finest recordings of the 1920’s