Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


SMITH, Mamie

(b Mamie Gardener, 26 May 1883, Cincinnatti OH; d 16 September 1946, NYC) A dancer, pianist and singer who became one of the famous Smith blues singers, along with Bessie, Clara and Trixie Smith (all unrelated). But Mamie was a cabaret entertainer, not specifically a blues singer to begin with.

At the age of ten she was a professional dancer in black vaudeville, later married a man named Smith, and relocated to New York City by 1913, where she appeared in a show called Made In Harlem in 1918, built around the songs of Perry Bradford, an important pioneer in black music: 'Harlem Blues' was a show-stopping song. She was a big, beautiful woman with a big, beautiful contralto voice; like Bessie's, her voice could fill a hall without a microphone, and overcame the limitations of the acoustic recording medium, although it was lighter in color. She was not the musical genius that Bessie was, but a good entertainer with a lot of stage presence. Victoria Spivey saw her perform in Houston and never forgot the experience. 

Bradford knew that the market for black music could be a lucrative one, but it was invisible to record companies then. He finally talked Okeh Records into giving Smith a chance. Her first record was 'That Thing Called Love'/'You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down,' on which she was backed by a white band, and which sold well enough to justify another recording session. Her second record, 'Crazy Blues'/'It’s Right Here For You,' with a black band including Bradford on piano, was recorded and released in 1920 and a runaway hit. Sales figures from back then are notoriously unreliable, but it may have sold well into six figures, incredible then, and 'race' music was born. (Whatever the sales figures were, they easily overcame a threatened boycott of Okeh for recording 'coloured' singers.) 'Crazy Blues' is still regarded as the first blues record.

She called her band the Jazz Hounds, and her sideman included such great jazzmen as cornetist Johnny Dunn, king of that instrument until Louis Armstrong bumped him off the throne; clarinetist Buster Bailey, later with Duke Ellington for many years; cornetist Bubber Miley, soon profoundly influential in the Ellington band; and teenaged saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, on alto sax at first, soon switching to tenor. The style of the accompaniment and the primitive acoustic sound on the earliest sides meant that none of these people were heard to much advantage, but it is fun to hear her sing 'Wang Wang Blues' and 'That Da Da Strain', later better known as instrumentals. She is magnificent on 'Wabash Blues'. The sound had improved markedly by August 1923 when she recorded with a trio including the great Sidney Bechet on soprano sax. Her pianists included Porter Grainger and Clarence Williams, like Bradford important enterpreneurs in early black music. Of her later (electrically recorded) sides, when she was well into her 40s, Andy Razaf's 'Lue Of The South' is a good song, and 'Golfing Papa' (credited to a Reynolds) is amusing: a golf widow tells her man he'll have to stop putting on her green -- 'Turn in your scorecard!' -- because she's found a man who can make a hole in one. Mamie recorded on Ajax in 1924, on Victor in 1926, and back on Okeh in 1929 and again in 1931, by which time the Depression had put a lot of recording artists out of business.

She appeared in shows and revues including Fireworks Of 1930 with the Fats Waller/Jimmie Johnson Syncopators; in short films Jailhouse Blues (1929) and a Soundie Because I Love You (1943, with the Lucky Millinder band); and in feature films Paradise In Harlem (1939) (singing 'Harlem Blues' with Millinder), Mystery In Swing (1940), Murder On Lenox Avenue and Sunday Sinners (both in 1941). Her art, a cross between cabaret and vaudeville, began to be heard as out of date, and she died in near obscurity in New York in 1946. The Columbia Legacy compilation Crazy Blues: The Best Of Mamie Smith does her justice.