I had written down in my History Hunt notes that, this week, I either wanted to feature Mamie Smith or Bessie Smith, who are two incredibly important artists in the history of the blues that are actually no relation to each other! A quick Google showed me that Mamie Smith has only a fraction of the hits that Bessie Smith did, and so, well, that decided that!
Mamie Smith was born Mamie Robinson on May 26, 1883, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about her childhood. We do know that she started performing when she was only ten years old, when she joined a touring dance group called the Four Dancing Mitchells. When she was either nineteen or twenty, she was living in New York and had married her first husband. She’d also started to be known for her singing as well as her dancing.
Smith wasn’t exclusively a blues singer–she also sang pop songs of the day. After World War I, she tried to make records, but ran into serious problems. The two main labels, Columbia and Victor, refused to make a recording sung by a Black woman. They must have regretted their racism later, because when Smith recorded her first hit in 1920, “Crazy Blues,” it sold 10 000 records in the first week and 75 000 in the first month–outstanding numbers for the time!
Smith was the first Black singer to record the blues (with “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” which she recorded six months before “Crazy Blues”), and thanks to her incredible success, she made it possible for other Black blues singers–especially women–to make records and achieve great popularity in the years to come.
After her hit, Smith became rich and she and her band, the Jazz Hounds, were well paid for their performances. She went on to make twenty-three more records, toured Europe, and performed in nine variety shows. She also acted in a number of movies in the late 1930s and 1940s, making her a real triple threat!
Nowadays, though Mamie Smith isn’t enjoying nearly the fame she deserves, she hasn’t been completely overlooked. Her recording of “Crazy Love” was added to the American National Recording Registry in 2006. Its goal is to preserve recordings that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.” There have been only 425 recordings that have been added to the registry since January 27, 2003–that she was included says a lot! I can only hope she continues to be recognised as the incredibly important artist she is in the future.
Listen to one of Smith’s recordings, “Let’s Agree To Disagree,” and watch it being played on a record player below! (Can you find the Bridal Chorus played by the instrumentalists at the end?)
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To Learn More (sources):
Smith, Mamie 1883–1946 at Encyclopedia.com
Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market at NPR.org
Smith, Mamie (1883-1946) at BlackPast.org
Harlem Renaissance Lives from the African American National Biography by Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham
National Recording Registry at Wikipedia.org
Image source: Old Hat Records