Her voice was remarkable, filling the largest hall without amplification and reaching out to each listener in beautiful, earthy tones. Born into poverty in Chattanooga, TN, Bessie Smith began singing for money on street corners and eventually rose to become the largest-selling recording artist of her day. So mesmerizing was her vocal style - reinforced by her underrated acting and comedic skills - that near-riots frequently erupted when she appeared. Those outside the theaters clamored to get in; those inside refused to leave without hearing more of Smith. Guitarist Danny Barker as saying: "Bessie Smith was a fabulous deal to watch. She was a large, pretty woman and she dominated the stage. You didn't turn your head when she went on. You just watched Bessie. If you had any church background like people who came from the [U.S.] South as I did, you would recognize a similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people. She could bring about mass hypnotism." With her earnings, Smith was able to purchase a custom-designed railroad car for herself and her troupe in 1925. This luxury allowed her to circumvent some of the dispiriting effects of the racism found in both northern and southern states as she traveled with her own tent show or with the Theater Owners' Booking Association (TOBA) shows, commanding a weekly salary that peaked at $2,000. Twice she was instrumental in helping save Columbia Records from bankruptcy.
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