“Gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop,” she sings, invoking an inflammatory term that was unfortunately not uncommon — even among Black folks — at the time, “Get myself a gun and shoot myself a cop.” Somehow we’ve gone from “Crazy in Love” to “____ tha Police” over the course of one song.
Bradford had assembled an all-Black band, the Jazz Hounds, who played live, improvised music that was its own unpredictable, breakneck adventure — a refreshing contrast to the buttoned-up versions of the blues interpreted by white artists across the 1910s. And Smith was game about playing along with them. “It’s remarkable,” said the critic David Wondrich, whose gutsy book “Stomp and Swerve” documents a history of America’s “hot” music. “She’s a part of the band. She’s bending notes with them. She’s not flinching whenever the trombone drops a bomb.”
The reaction to the song, particularly among Black audiences, was groundbreaking. The explosiveness of its parting lyrics, its references to drugs and vigilantism caught the public’s attention and broke boundaries: Something taboo was being uttered on a record for the first time in a popular song by a Black woman entertainer. Bradford’s gamble on “a Black woman nobody’s ever heard of,” as the popular music historian Elijah Wald put it in a phone interview, was “a huge conceptual leap.”
It’s also possible that Black listeners were dazzled by a phenomenally well-executed record that captured an even bigger, existential ache than its lyrics describe. It was an expression of the grandeur and complexity of Black life, finally available for their phonograph. Sales figures for “Crazy Blues” show an estimated 75,000 copies purchased upon its release, and in 1921 Billboard credited the song as pulling in “a million dollars’ worth,” a giant sum at the time that stood for “lots and lots” in this era, Wald said.
Black recording artists subsequently made significant inroads riding the coattails of Smith’s success. Blues women dominated the first half of the decade, with Waters, Rainey and Bessie Smith at the forefront of the craze. Waters’s popularity would almost single-handedly keep the African-American-owned Black Swan Records afloat in the early 1920s. Rainey, called “the Mother of the Blues,” signed with Paramount Records in 1923 and would go on to crank out more than 100 songs covering topics like lesbian pride and the perils of patriarchy. And that other Smith, the “Empress” Bessie, would hold court at Columbia Records as the most formidable and original voice of the blues.
These were the pioneers who upended the soundtrack of American life. Record labels now believed in the (monetary) value of Black mass cultural art, and they provided Black artists with access — though still heavily mediated by white executives — to recording their own music. Pop music was transformed by a people whose musical innovations were — and remain today — the manifestation of a brutal, centuries long, blood-soaked struggle to be regarded as human in the West.