As Mamie is the first artist featured on BLUE MOVIES – I’m giving this feature the full spec, some of the other artists to follow are less well documented anyway so I’ll have a much smaller research resource.
Born Mamie Robinson on May 26, 1883, (seems like ancient history – only 18 years after the US Civil War!) in Cincinnati, OH; died on October 30, 1946 (some say a couple of months earlier); married William “Smitty” Smith, a singer, in 1912; married twice more later in life.
Pop and blues vocalist. Toured with the Four Dancing Mitchells, ca. 1890s; moved to New York and began singing and dancing in Harlem nightclubs, 1910s (must have been a great time to be around); appeared in revue Maid in Harlem; recorded “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” first ‘documented’ (not deffo) recording by a black female vocalist, 1920; recorded “Crazy Blues,” 1920; recorded over twenty sides for OKeh label, early 1920s; toured widely; recorded for several labels, late 1920s; European tour, 1936; appeared in five films, 1939-43.
Mamie Smith is believed to be the first African-American female performer to make a record, paving the way for all the classic blues women of the 1920s and beyond. Though one of the recordings that spread her fame was called “Crazy Blues,” Smith was more closely associated with popular songs of the day than with the blues. Her commanding stage manner and luxurious self-presentation influenced the development of urban concert blues, and it was immediately clear that her recordings were milestones in the development of African-American music.
Of course, all black performers of the day faced terrible obstacles and daily humiliations. But Mamie Smith learned her craft not in the traveling shows of the segregated South but in the theaters and dance halls in the North.
It has been reported that Smith left home at age ten and joined the company of a touring white dance troupe, the Four Dancing Mitchells. Smith made her way to New York and acquired her professional surname when she married the singer William “Smitty” Smith in 1912–she would marry twice more later in life. That year, she also performed as a dancer with the Tutt-Whitney Smart Set dance company, (before putting on a bit too much weight methinks) and she was also developing a reputation as a singer in the Harlem clubs that were forerunners of the vigorous Harlem Renaissance scene of the 1920s.
Smith allied herself with Perry Bradford, a multitalented songwriter, bandleader and manager. With signs of a blues craze rising as a successor to ragtime in the period immediately after the end of World War I, Bradford attempted to interest recording executives in Smith, who at the time was starring in a musical revue called Maid in Harlem. Columbia flatly refused to record a black female singer, (in those days and as far as I can see up to and including the Sixties, A & R personnel were never famous for gambling, and fair to say not really their job, but nonetheless frequently turned down some of the biggest acts of all time), and its competitor, Victor, the ancestor of the modern RCA label, likewise declined to release a test pressing Smith made of a Bradford-penned song called “That Thing Called Love.” Smith had stood in on the test pressing for white vocalist Sophie Tucker.