Smith, Mamie 1883–1946
Mamie Smith 1883–1946
Mamie Smith was the first African-American female performer to make a phonograph record, paving the way for all the classic blues women of the 1920s and beyond. Though one of the recordings that spread her fame was called “Crazy Blues,” Smith was more closely associated with popular songs of the day than with the blues. Her commanding stage manner and luxurious self-presentation influenced the development of urban concert blues, and it was immediately clear that her recordings were milestones African-American music.
Unrelated to Bessie Smith or Trixie Smith, Mamie Smith was born Mamie Robinson in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 26, 1883. Many stretches of her life are not well documented, but her musical development seems to have occurred in a somewhat different environment than that which produced the down-to-earth blues vocals of Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Of course, all black performers of the day faced terrible obstacles and daily humiliations. But Mamie Smith learned her craft not in the traveling shows of the segregated South but in the theaters and dance halls of northern vaudeville.
It has been reported that Smith left home at age ten and joined the company of a touring white dance troupe, the Four Dancing Mitchells. Smith made her way to New York and acquired her professional surname when she married the singer William “Smitty” Smith in 1912—she would marry twice more later in life. That year, she also performed as a dancer with the Tutt-Whitney Smart Set dance company, and she was also developing a reputation as a singer in the Harlem clubs that were forerunners of the vigorous Harlem Renaissance scene of the 1920s.
Singer Victoria Spivey, in a Record Research interview quoted in Notable Black American Women, described Smith on stage, and in her description we can imagine foreshadowings of the powerful personal extravagance of the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith. “Wow!” Spivey recalled. “Miss Smith walked out on that stage and I could not breathe for a minute. She threw those big sparkling eyes on us with that lovely smile showing those pearly white teeth with a diamond the size of one of her teeth. Then I looked at her dress. Nothing but
At a Glance…
Born Mamie Robinson on May 26, 1883, in Cincinnati, OH; died October 30, 1946 (some sources give date as August 16); married William “Smitty” Smith, a singer, in 1912; married twice more later in life.
Career: Pop and blues vocalist Toured with the Four Dancing Mitchells, ca. 1890s; moved to New York and began singing and dancing in Harlem nightclubs, 1910s; appeared in revue Maid in Harlem; recorded “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down/’ first documented recording by a black female vocalist, 1920; recorded “Crazy Blues,” 1920; recorded over twenty sides for OKeh label, early 1920s; toured widely; recorded for several labels, late 1920s; European tour, ca. 1936; appeared in five films, 1939–43.
sequins and rhinestones plus a velvet cape with white fur on it … and when she sung she tore the house down.”
Smith allied herself with Perry Bradford, a multitalented songwriter, bandleader, and manager who was a friend and something of a northern counterpart to the southern “Father of the Blues,” W. C. Handy. With signs of a blues craze rising as a successor to ragtime in the period immediately after the end of World War I, Bradford attempted to interest recording executives in Smith, who at the time was starring in a musical revue called Maid in Harlem. Columbia flatly refused to record a black female singer, and its competitor, Victor, the ancestor of the modern RCA label, likewise declined to release a test pressing Smith made of a Bradford-penned song called “That Thing Called Love.” Smith had stood in on the test pressing for white vocalist Sophie Tucker.
Copies of the record leaked out to dealers, however, and customers snapped them up—then as now a phenomenon guaranteed to attract the attention of record executives. Smith was brought into the studios of the OKeh label on February 14, 1920, to record “That Thing Called Love” again, and a new era began in the recording industry. That 78 rpm record (with its flip side of “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down”) sold well, and six months later Smith was called to the studio again. Smith’s next record, “Crazy Blues,” really defined the market for what would soon be called “race records,” recordings made by blacks and aimed at a market consisting of blacks and white observers of the latest trends.
Originally titled “Harlem Blues,” “Crazy Blues” is said to have sold 75,000 copies in its first month of release; it eventually sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Clearly the same rise in black consciousness that produced the artistic manifestations of the Harlem Renaissance and the new militancy of political leader Marcus Garvey was also showing itself in the formation of an independent market for African-American recordings. Curiously, the record that did so much to define blues as an American musical genre more resembled what we would call jazz today; Smith was accompanied by a small band with several wind instruments. Nevertheless, “Crazy Blues” opened the doors for recordings by other blues singers, at first primarily women, who were bringing the downhome blues of the South to the nation’s large cities.
Smith and her band, the Jazz Hounds, soon began to receive fees of &2,500 or &3,000 per performance, and therefore to tour widely. She made 23 more records for OKeh in the early 1920s and appeared in nine musical variety shows. Some of her recordings featured instrumentalists who later went on to fame in New York’s jazz world, notably cornetist and trumpeter “Bubber” Miley. Recording for several labels in the late 1920s as other blues singers eclipsed her in popularity, Smith continued to draw audiences when her name was on the marquee. She toured Europe in or around 1936.
Smith’s remarkably durable career flowered anew in the late 1930s as she appeared in a series of movies. These included Paradise in Harlem (1939), also featuring bandleader Lucky Millinder, Mystery in Swing (1940), Murder on Lenox Avenue (1941), Sunday Sinners (1941), and Because I Love You (1943). Smith died in 1946 (the date is variously given as August 16 and October 30), her musical contributions little remembered. But as awareness of her pioneering status grew, a group of musicians worked in 1964 to raise money for her reinterment in a more suitable grave that the one in which she had originally been buried. A group of German fans, gained during her 1936 tour, sent a headstone by ship for installation during her second funeral ceremony.
Part of the reason Smith remains more a milestone of musical history than a widely heard musician is that she has been poorly served by reissues in recent years. An obscure Austrian label called Document reissued her complete recordings in the 1980s, but these reissues themselves are rare. There are only spotty representations of Smith’s recordings on CD blues compilations—a distortion of the career of a performer who was well known to Harlem record buyers of the 1920s, and who blazed the trail for some of the best-known African-American musicians of all.
Complete Recorded Works, vols. 1–4, Document.
Harrison, Daphne Duval, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s, Rutgers University Press, 1988.
Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale Research, 1992.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 2000.
Southern, Eileen, The Music of Black Americans, 3rd ed., Norton, 1998.
All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com.
—James M. Manheim
May 26, 1883
September 16, 1946
Many details surrounding the birth of the blues singer Mamie Smith, the first African-American recording star, are uncertain. It is generally conceded that she was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but it is not clear what her birth name was. Before reaching adulthood she sang, danced, and acted with white and black traveling vaudeville shows, including the Four Dancing Mitchells and the Salem Tutt-Whitney show. She married the singer William "Smitty" Smith in 1912 and came to New York the next year with the Smart Set, a black vaudeville troupe.
In New York, Smith met Perry Bradford (1893–1970), a minstrel performer and popular song composer, who eventually hired her for his show Made in Harlem (1918); he also launched her recording career in 1920 when he persuaded technicians at Okeh Records to let her record "That Thing Called Love" and "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down." This disc, one of the earliest known recordings by an African-American popular singer, sold well enough to allow Smith to return to Okeh's studios later that year to record "Crazy Blues," a Bradford composition backed by a jazz band whose members included the pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith (1897–1973). "Crazy Blues" is sometimes considered the first blues recording, but the performance shares less with other classic blues records from the 1920s than with popular musical and vaudeville theater songs of the time. Nonetheless, "Crazy Blues" was a huge success that sold more than one million copies and initiated the blues craze of the 1920s. "Crazy Blues" also inaugurated the "race music" industry, which marketed blues and jazz specifically for African-American audiences.
In the 1920s Smith worked extensively with some of the finest improvisers in blues and jazz, including the trumpet player Bubber Miley on "I'm Gonna Get You" (1922), the saxophonist Coleman Hawkins on "Got to Cool My Doggies Now" (1922), and the saxophonist Sidney Bechet on "Lady Luck Blues" (1923). She also continued to perform in vaudeville and stage acts, including Follow Me (1922), Struttin' Along (1923), Dixie Revue (1924), Syncopated Revue (1925), and Frolicking Around (1926). Smith became wealthy, lived lavishly, and toured and recorded frequently.
In the 1930s Smith sang at clubs and concerts with the bands of Fats Pichon and Andy Kirk, and with the Beale Street Boys. She also performed in the shows Sun Tan Follies (1929), Fireworks of 1930 (1930), Rhumbaland Avenue (1931), and Yelping Hounds Revue (1932-1934). Smith's film career began in 1929 with Jailhouse Blues and continued with Paradise in Harlem (1939), Mystery in Swing (1940), Murder on Lenox Avenue (1941), and Because I Love You (1943). By the early 1940s, however, Smith had lost much of her wealth. In 1944 she made her last appearance in New York, with Billie Holiday. That year Smith fell ill, and she spent the last two years of her life in Harlem Hospital. Though the generally accepted date of Smith's death is September 16, 1946, it is possible that she died on October 30.
Henderson, Ashyia, ed. "Mamie Smith." Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 32. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2002.
Kunstadt, Len. "Mamie Smith: The First Lady of the Blues." Record Research 57 (January 1964): 3–12.
"Mamie Smith." Redhotjazz.com. Available from <http://www.redhotjazz.com/mamie.html>.
Stewart-Baxter, Derrick. Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues Singers. New York: Stein and Day, 1970.
bud kliment (1996)