Mamie Smith has gained legendary status as the first person to record a Blues record, and her vaudeville style rendition of Perry Bradford’s ‘Crazy Blues’ in July 1920 achieved phenomenal sales, bringing about the birth of what was called ‘race music‘. This event was the first realisation that there was a big demand among the African-American population for a kind of music that was recognisably their own. This opened the doors for other ‘Blues Divas’, and eventually all kinds of Blues music, to be recorded and distributed.
Mamie Robinson was born in Cincinnati in 1883. She showed early talent as a dancer and joined a travelling show at the age of ten, later teaming up with Salem Tutt-Whitney’s ‘Smart Set’, a well known revue troupe. When she was 20, Mamie married William Smith and settled in New York, where she worked in Harlem clubs. Mamie’s voice was strong and clear, but lacked real Blues inflections and emotive charge, although she was technically a very good singer. She appeared in Perry Bradford’s 1918 musical ‘Made in Harlem’ and, although Okeh Records had originally wanted Sophie Tucker to sing ‘Crazy Blues’, Perry persuaded them to give it to Mamie. The results were astonishing: a record cost $1 in 1920, which was a full day’s pay for a working man, so when tens of thousands were sold each week the economics spoke for themselves. Total sales of the record were said to top a million, perhaps because shellac records became ‘played out’ so many of those sales were in fact re-purchases, but the record crossed-over into the bigger white market too.
The record that started it all in 1920;
Suddenly Mamie was a star and she formed the Jazz Hounds to accompany her on club dates, concerts and recordings. She was a good looking woman and wore fabulous gowns and jewels on stage, setting a high standard for the Blues Divas like Lucille Hegamin, Ethel Waters, Trixie Smith and Alberta Hunter and dozens more who followed her. Okeh released 23 records by Mamie in 1921-22 and most were closer to vaudeville tunes than Blues songs, but the barrier had been broken and the new ‘race music‘ market was to grow in many unexpected directions. Mamie made a lot of money and was billed as ‘The Queen of the Blues’, a role she played to the hilt, but by 1923 the record companies had signed some genuinely talented Blues women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith who, as ‘The Empress of the Blues’, usurped Mamie’s throne. Mamie moved from the Okeh label to Ajax in 1924, and later to Victor, but her records were never again to sell in such big numbers.
1935 film of Mamie singing ‘Harlem Blues’;
Mamie Smith Discography
Document have collected the tracks Mamie cut in her first couple of years of recording in Chronological order.
COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL.1
Mamie toured Europe several times with her ‘Hounds’ and in 1929 appeared in the film ‘Jailhouse Blues’. She became a nightclub singer in the 30s and in 1939 she sang with the Lucky Millinder
Orchesrtra in another film, ‘Paradise in Harlem’. She appeared in four more films and continued working club dates before entering a New York hospital in 1944. After a long illness, she passed away in 1946.