Mamie Smith on the sleeve of volume 1 of the Complete Recorded Works reissue collection
Mamie Smith (May 26, 1883 - September 16, 1946) was a vaudeville singer, dancer, pianist and actress, and appeared in several motion
pictures 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 to make vocal blues recordings in 1920.
Smith was born as Mamie Robinson in Cincinnati, Ohio. She toured with African-American vaudeville and minstrel shows until settling in
New York City in 1913, where she worked as a cabaret singer. She appeared in songwriter Perry Bradford's musical "Made in Harlem" in 1918.
In early 1920, Okeh Records planned to record popular singer Sophie Tucker performing a pair of songs by Perry Bradford. Tucker was ill and
could not make it to the session; Bradford persuaded Okeh to allow Mamie Smith to record in Tucker's place. Smith recorded two sides ("That
Thing Called Love" and "You Can't Keep A Good Man Down") on February 14, 1920, backed by a white studio band. Smith's record sold moderately
well, so she and Bradford were invited back to make additional recordings. On August 10 of 1920, Smith recorded the Bradford-penned "Crazy
Blues" and "It's Right Here For You, If You Don't Get It, 'Tain't No Fault of Mine". These were the first recordings of vocal blues by an
African American singer, and the record became an explosive best seller, selling a million copies in one year. To the surprise of record
companies, large numbers of the record were purchased by African-Americans, a market the record industry had hitherto neglected. "Crazy
Blues" in particular was noted as a distinctively "colored" number performed by a "colored" performer. Although other African Americans
had been recorded earlier (going back to George W. Johnson in the 1890s), they were all black artists who had a substantial following with
white 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 record industry to recordings by and for African Americans in other genres.
Mamie 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". (Shortly later, this billing of Mamie Smith was one-upped by Bessie Smith, who called herself "The Empress
of the Blues".)
Mamie Smith appeared in an early soundie, 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. She appeared in further films, including Mystery in Swing,
Sunday Sinners (1940), Stolen Paradise, Murder on Lenox Avenue (1941), and Because I Love You (1943).
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