Mamie Smith, the first true queen of the blues, created a sensation with the phenomenal success of her 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues” and her extravagant stage shows. Not only did she help pioneer a new trend that led to the creation of what was called the “race record” market for African-American buyers, but she also validated the blues, which was not regarded as a valuable commodity in certain musical circles. Her following cut across racial lines, and she broke new ground by taking blues into uncharted territories—a reviewer in Anaconda, Montana, in 1923, for instance, gushed: “Nothing of the kind has ever been seen or heard here before. . . . Mamie Smith is a riot of whirling color, twinkling feet and jazz melodies.”
Smith’s training in the theater and vaudeville prepared her to emerge on the blues circuit with a formidable act for other divas to challenge. Her blues had polish, her wardrobe was lavish, and her troupes of dancers, singers, and comedians brought press notices such as “the cleanest and most wholesome colored attraction now touring” and “high-class dancing and clean-cut comedy.” Her flamboyance carried over into a luxurious lifestyle afforded by the sudden wealth she amassed. She bought three houses in New York, complete with fine accoutrements, servants, and, one visitor noted, “rugs on the floor as thick as mattresses.”
Smith continued to record until 1931 for OKeh and other labels, scoring early hits with “Dangerous Blues,” “Lonesome Mama,” a reissue of her first release, “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” and others. Her popularity as a recording artist was soon eclipsed by other women such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, but she remained a major attraction on the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit. In a retrospective piece in 1955, Floyd G. Snelson wrote in the Chicago Defender: “Mamie carried thousand dollar bills in her money belt. She bought gilt securities, and a farm in the South. All of this went with the crash of 1929 and the poor gal lived off charity and friends until her death.” This was somewhat at odds with how Snelson described her in 1939: “Mamie is hale and hearty and looks the picture of health, having lost many fortunes during her eventful career. . . . She’s a grand gal if you ask me!” While the 1930s were lean years in the business, Mamie’s management continued to feed the press with stories of her touring in “a blaze of glory” and headlines such as “Mamie Smith is Still the South’s Favorite Singer” in 1934 and afterward. From 1939 to 1942 Mamie revived a film career which began with Jail House Blues in 1929, appearing in movies such as Sunday Sinners, Paradise in Harlem, and Murder on Lenox Avenue. She was reportedly married to promoter and film producer Jack Goldberg at one point.
Some details of her life remain sketchy, and there is still debate about her birth and death dates. The 1939 Chicago Defender article offered some important details, stating that she was born Mamie Robinson in Cincinnati on September 19, 1890, and began performing at the age of ten. The 1890 citation is in line with her age as entered in the census and mentioned in obituaries. Sheldon Harris, author of Blues Who’s Who, published information he obtained from a Mamie Smith death certificate that listed her dates of birth (May 26, 1883) and death (September 16, 1946), but he noted that both dates were unconfirmed (the certificate turned out to be for a different Mamie Smith). He listed other possible death dates and, based on a report from a New York columnist in Pittsburgh’s African-American paper the Courier, one of them was correct: October 30, 1946.
The former blues queen was buried without a headstone. Singer Victoria Spivey, an admirer and rival, helped put together a tribute to her memory at New York’s Celebrity Club in 1964 to raise money for a monument, and a headstone was reportedly sent from Germany. Finally, after a new campaign by Michael Cala, a headstone was dedicated in 2014, engraved with the unconfirmed dates quoted in Blues Who’s Who.