26 May 1883
Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Ohio, United States
16 September 1946 (aged 63)
Mamie Smith (née Robinson) (May 26, 1883 – September 16, 1946) was an American vaudeville singer, dancer, pianist and actress, who appeared in several films late in her career. As a vaudeville singer she performed a number of styles including jazz and blues. She entered blues history by being the first African American artist to make vocal blues recordings in 1920. Willie "The Lion" Smith (not her husband) explained the background to that recording in his (ghosted) autobiography, Music on My Mind.
Mamie Robinson was born probably in Cincinnati, Ohio, although no records of her birth exist. When she was ten years old, she found work touring with a white act called the Four Dancing Mitchells. As a teenager, she danced in Salem Tutt Whitney's Smart Set. In 1913, she left the Tutt Brothers to sing in clubs in Harlem and married a waiter named William "Smitty" Smith.
On August 10, 1920, in New York City, Smith recorded a set of songs all written by the African American songwriter, Perry Bradford, including "Crazy Blues" and "It's Right Here For You (If You Don't Get It, 'Tain't No Fault of Mine)", on Okeh Records. It was the first recording of vocal blues by an African American artist and the record became a best seller, selling a million copies in less than a year. To the surprise of record companies, large numbers of the record were purchased by African Americans, and there was a sharp increase in the popularity of race records.
Because of the historical significance of "Crazy Blues", it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994, and in 2005, it was selected for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.
Although other African Americans had been recorded earlier, such as George W. Johnson in the 1890s, they were African American artists performing music which had a substantial following with 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. It also opened up the music industry to recordings by, and for, African Americans in other genres.
Smith continued to make a series of popular recordings for Okeh throughout the 1920s. She also 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". She was billed as "The Queen of the Blues". This billing of Mamie Smith was soon one-upped by Bessie Smith, who called herself "The Empress of the Blues."
Mamie Smith appeared in an early sound film, Jail House 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. She appeared in further films, including Mystery in Swing, Sunday Sinners (1940), Stolen Paradise (1941), Murder on Lenox Avenue (1941), and Because I Love You (1943). She died in 1946, in New York.
Mamie Smith was cited by Connee Boswell of The Boswell Sisters as a major influence on Connee's singing style. The Boswell Sisters not only bought and imitated her recordings, but were taken regularly by their parents to the Lyric Theater, New Orleans' Black vaudeville house, to see her and other touring Black artists on the only day of the week that Whites were allowed to attend.
When you hear Connee, you can hear Mamie's influence. The remarkable thing is that later, Connee was cited by Ella Fitzgerald as Ella's only influence on her vocal style. This really illustrates the mixing of cultures that was such a part of the development of American popular music through the new media of the day, records and radio, as well as live performance.
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