Mamie Smith

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Mamie Smith
MamieSmith.png
Background information
Birth name Mamie Robinson
Born c. (1883-05-26)May 26, 1883
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S. (unconfirmed)[1]
Died September 16, 1946(1946-09-16) (aged 63)
Staten Island, New York, U.S.
Genres Blues
Occupation(s) Actress, dancer, singer
Instruments Vocals, piano

Mamie Smith (née Robinson; May 26, c. 1883 – September 16, 1946) was an American vaudeville singer, dancer, pianist and actress. As a vaudeville singer she performed in various styles, including jazz and blues. In 1920, she entered blues history as the first African-American artist to make vocal blues recordings. Willie "The Lion" Smith (no relation) described the background of that recording in his autobiography, Music on My Mind (1964).

Early life

Robinson was probably born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but no records of her birth are known.[1][2] The year of her birth is usually given as 1883, but the researchers Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc state that she was recorded as 20 years old in the 1910 census.[3]

When she was around 10 years old, she found work touring with a white act, the Four Dancing Mitchells.[4] As a teenager, she danced in Salem Tutt Whitney's Smart Set.[2] In 1913, she left the Tutt Brothers to sing in clubs in Harlem and married William "Smitty" Smith, a singer.[4]

Musical career

On February 14, 1920, Smith recorded "That Thing Called Love" and "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down" for Okeh Records, in New York City, after African-American songwriter and bandleader Perry Bradford persuaded Fred Hagar. This was the first recording by a black blues singer; the musicians, however, were all white. Hagar had received threats from Northern and Southern pressure groups saying they would boycott the company if he recorded a black singer. Despite these threats the record was a commercial success and opened the door for more black musicians to record.[5]

Smith's biggest hit was recorded later, on August 10, 1920 when she recorded a set of songs written by Perry Bradford, including "Crazy Blues" and "It's Right Here for You (If You Don't Get It, 'Tain't No Fault of Mine)", again for Okeh Records;[6][7][8] a million copies of the record were sold in less than a year.[9] Many copies of the record were bought by African Americans, and there was a sharp increase in the popularity of race records.[10] Because of its historical significance, "Crazy Blues" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994[11] and was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2005.[12]

Although other African Americans had been recorded earlier, such as George W. Johnson in the 1890s, they were performing music that had a substantial following among European-American audiences. The success of Smith's record prompted record companies to seek to record other female blues singers and started the era of what is now known as classic female blues.[8]

Gravure of Smith in the New York Clipper, 1921

Smith continued to make popular recordings for Okeh throughout the 1920s. In 1924 she made three releases for Ajax Records, which, while heavily promoted, did not sell well.[13] She made some records for Victor. She toured the United States and Europe with her band, Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds, as part of Mamie Smith's Struttin' Along Review.[14]

She was billed as "The Queen of the Blues" (a billing soon one-upped by Bessie Smith, who was called "The Empress of the Blues"). Mamie found that the new mass medium of radio provided a means of gaining additional fans, especially in cities with predominantly white audiences. For example, she and several members of her band performed on KGW in Portland, Oregon, in early May 1923 and received positive reviews.[15]

Various recording lineups of the Jazz Hounds included (from August 1920 to October 1921) Jake Green, Curtis Moseley, Garvin Bushell, Johnny Dunn, Dope Andrews, Ernest Elliot, Porter Grainger, Leroy Parker and Bob Fuller and (from June 1922 to January 1923) Coleman Hawkins, Everett Robbins, Johnny Dunn, Herschel Brassfield, Herb Flemming, Buster Bailey Cutie Perkins, Joe Smith, Bubber Miley and Cecil Carpenter.[16]

While recording with the Jazz Hounds, she also recorded as Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Band, comprising George Bell, Charles Matson, Nathan Glantz, Larry Briers, Jules Levy, Jr., Joe Samuels, together with musicians from the Jazz Hounds, including Coleman, Fuller and Carpenter.[17]

Film career and later years

Smith appeared in an early sound film, Jailhouse Blues, in 1929. She retired from recording and performing in 1931. She returned to performing in 1939 to appear in the motion picture Paradise in Harlem, produced by her husband, Jack Goldberg.[12]

She also appeared in other films, including Mystery in Swing (1940), Sunday Sinners (1940), Stolen Paradise (1941), Murder on Lenox Avenue (1941), and Because I Love You (1943).[18]

Death

Smith died in 1946 in New York, New York,[19] reportedly penniless.[20] The amount of time that Mamie Smith was buried in an unmarked grave and the year that a headstone was carved is disputed.

According to the Jas Obrecht Music Archive website, Smith was buried in an unmarked grave until 1963, when musicians from Iserlohn, West Germany used the money from a Hot Jazz benefit to buy a Headstone that read “Mamie Smith (1883-1946): First Lady of The Blues”. With the help of fellow blues singer Victoria Spivey and Record Research Magazine publisher Len Kunstadt, Smith was re-interred at Frederick Douglass Memorial Park in Richmond, New York. Smith’s re-interment was celebrated with a gala honoring the late singer on January 27, 1964.[20]

However, according to the 2013 campaign website 1World1Family.me, Mamie Smith was still buried without a headstone or marker 67 years after her death and the campaign site Indiegogo asked for donations to build a headstone featuring an image of the late blues singer on a “4-Foot high monument” to be erected at Frederick Douglass Cemetery in Staten Island, New York.[21]

Hit records

Year Single US
Chart
[22]
1920 "Crazy Blues" 3
1921 "Fare Thee Honey Blues" 9
"Royal Garden Blues" 13
"You Can't Keep a Good Man Down" 4
"Dangerous Blues" 6
1922 "Lonesome Mama Blues" 6
1923 "You Can Have Him, I Don't Want Him Blues" 13
"You've Got to See Mama Ev'ry Night (Or You Can't See Mama At All)" 13

References

  1. ^ a b Tracy, Steven C. (1998). Going to Cincinnati: A History of the Blues in the Queen City. University of Illinois Press. p. 5. ISBN 0-252-06709-6. 
  2. ^ a b Oliver, Paul, "Smith (née Robinson), Mamie", The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (2 ed.), Oxford University Press, retrieved April 22, 2010  (registration required)
  3. ^ Eagle, Bob; LeBlanc, Eric S. (2013). Blues: A Regional Experience. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. p. 530. ISBN 978-0313344237. 
  4. ^ a b Gates, Henry Louis; Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks (2009). Harlem Renaissance Lives from the African American National Biography. Oxford University Press US. p. 458. ISBN 0-19-538795-3. 
  5. ^ Oakley, Gilles (1976). The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues. Da Capo Press. pp. 83–84.
  6. ^ Weisenfeld, Judith (2007). Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American religion in American Film, 1929-1949. University of California Press. p. 287. ISBN 0-520-25100-8. 
  7. ^ Whalan, Mark (2010). American Culture in the 1910s. Edinburgh University Press. p. 148. ISBN 0-7486-3424-X. 
  8. ^ a b Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music. Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 154. ISBN 1-904041-96-5. 
  9. ^ Schuller, Gunther (1986). Early jazz: its roots and musical development. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 226. ISBN 0-19-504043-0. 
  10. ^ Gates & Higginbotham, p. 460
  11. ^ "Grammy Hall of Fame". Grammy.org. Retrieved 6 July 2018. 
  12. ^ a b McCann, Bob (2010). Encyclopedia of African American Actresses in Film and Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. p. 309. ISBN 978-0786437900. 
  13. ^ Sutton, Allan; Nauck, Kurt (2000). American Record Labels and Companies: An Encyclopedia (1891–1943). Denver, Colorado: Mainspring Press. pp. 3–4. ISBN 0-9671819-0-9. 
  14. ^ Kernfeld, Barry Dean (2002). "Mamie Smith". The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, vol. 3 (2nd ed.). London: Macmillan. p. 615. ISBN 1-56159-284-6. 
  15. ^ "Broadcasting from KGW", Portland Oregonian, May 5, 1923, p. 11.
  16. ^ Gibbs, Craig Martin (2012). Black Recording Artists, 1877–1926: An Annotated Discography. pp. 73–122. McFarland. Retrieved May 2013.
  17. ^ Gibbs (2012). Black Recording Artists, 1877–1926. pp. 88–106; retrieved May 15, 2013.
  18. ^ Mamie Smith on IMDb
  19. ^ “Cincinnati’s own Mamie Smith”. AAREG. 1993, 2018. Retrieved 27 July 2018. https://aaregistry.org/story/cincinnatis-own-mamie-smith/
  20. ^ a b “Mamie Smith: The First Lady of The Blues”. Jas Obercht Music Archive. 7 June 2010. http://jasobrecht.com/mamie-smith-the-first-lady-of-the-blues/
  21. ^ “‘A Headstone for Mamie Smith’ Campaign has Ended”. 1World-1Family.me. 22 August 2013. http://1world1family.me/a-headstone-for-mamie-smith-campaign/
  22. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Pop Memories: 1890-1954. Record Research. ISBN 0-89820-083-0. 

External links

  • Mamie Smith African American Registry profile; accessed May 10, 2018.
  • Mamie Smith at AllMusic
  • Mamie Smith Blues Online Biography with photos
  • Mamie Smith on RedHotJazz.com with .ram files of her early recordings
  • Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market, NPR.org; accessed May 10, 2018.
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