Martin, Sara (1884–1955)
Martin, Sara (1884–1955)
African-American blues singer . Name variations: Sarah Dunn Martin; Margaret Johnson; Sally Roberts.Born on June 18, 1884, in Louisville, Kentucky; died of a stroke on May 24, 1955, in Louisville; daughter of William Dunn and Katie (Pope) Dunn; married William Myers (marriage ended); married Hayes Withers; children: (first marriage) one son.
Sugar Blues/ Achin' Heart Blues (1922, OK 8041); Graveyard Dream Blues (1923, OK 8099); Yes, Sir, That's My Baby (1925, OK 8262); Death Sting Me Blues/ Mistreatin' Man Blues (1928, QRS 7042); Mean Tight Mama (1928, QRS 7043).
Stage performances and recordings by 1920s vaudeville blues queen Sara Martin played a central role in popularizing the emerging American art form of the blues, and one of her first records, "Sugar Blues," recorded in 1922, has since become a classic.
A contemporary of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey , Martin was born in 1884 in Louisville, Kentucky, and as a teenager started performing in vaudeville there. Around 1915, she took her act north to Chicago, and within five years had made it to the entertainment circuit in New York City. She was sought after as much for her dramatic performances and her versatility as for her
voice, which was reportedly unexceptional and sometimes abrasive in tone. When Martin began singing in New York City clubs and cabarets, she attracted the notice of Clarence Williams (1898–1965), an African-American composer who was also the most frequently recorded jazz pianist in the 1920s. As a music publisher and promoter who founded a New York publishing house and opened several music stores, he recorded more African-American jazz musicians than anyone else at the time, frequently for the Okeh label, and through him Martin became one of the first female blues singers to be recorded.
Her first recordings with Okeh Records in 1922 included "Uncle Sam Blues" and "A Green Gal Can't Catch On," and "Sugar Blues" and its flip side, "Achin' Heart Blues." In the same year, she also recorded on the Columbia label with her own group, the Brown Skin Syncopators. In 1923, she recorded again on the Okeh label with Eva Taylor , Shelton Brooks, and Fats Waller; when Louisville guitarist Sylvester Weaver came to New York, Martin recorded with him, and so sponsored the first American recordings by a country bluesman. She also toured with Waller (1922–23) and with the W.C. Handy Band (1923) on the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit, the main circuit for black entertainers, performing among other places in Nashville, New Orleans, Atlantic City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
Sara Martin appeared in many 1920s revues, theatrical shows, and musicals, singing everything from traditional 12-bar and 16-bar blues to vaudeville comedy songs and even foxtrots which she delivered in the style of Sophie Tucker . She wore lavish gowns onstage, and frequently appeared in two or three different outfits in one show. At one point, she performed with her husband, William Myers, on banjo, and their three-year-old son onstage. She sang on radio in 1924 and 1927, and appeared in the 1927 film Hello Bill. In 1928, she toured Jamaica, Cuba, and Puerto Rico with the Get Happy Follies Revue, and the following year appeared with Mamie Smith in The Sun-Tan Frolics at the Lincoln Theater in New York City. During 1930, Martin again toured East Coast theaters, and performed also in Cleveland, Ohio clubs.
Shortly after that, Martin left blues and vaudeville behind and began singing gospel music with Thomas Dorsey, who had also recently switched from the blues. They toured Chicago-area churches in 1932. (She had earlier recorded gospel music with Sylvester Weaver, Arizona Dranes, and, in 1927, her future husband, Hayes Withers.) As a gospel singer, however, she never achieved the renown she had won on the vaudeville and blues club circuits. During the last decade of her life, having retired from performing, Sara Martin owned and managed a private nursing home in Louisville. She died of a stroke on May 24, 1955, and was buried at the Louisville Cemetery.
Cohn, Lawrence, et al. Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians. NY: Abbeville Press, 1993.
Kernfeld, Barry, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.
Harris, Sheldon. Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1979.
Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988.
Kellner, Bruce, ed. The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era. NY: Methuen, 1987.
"Sara in New York," in Chicago Defender. April 23, 1927.
"Sara Martin," in Living Blues. Number 52, 1982, p. 23.
Materials on Martin from around 1924 are located in the Music Division, vertical files, New York Public Library, Lincoln Center.
Beth Champagne , journalist and freelance writer, West Barnet, Vermont