Mamie Smith

Mamie Smith (May 26, 1883 – September 16, 1946) was an American blues singer, pianist, and songwriter, widely regarded as the first African American woman to make a vocal blues recording. She was also one of the first Black artists to record with a major record label. Mamie Smith was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but her family moved to New York City when she was a child. She began performing in vaudeville shows as a teenager, and by the early 1910s, she was a regular performer in Harlem’s African American music scene. She sang in nightclubs and theaters throughout the city, often accompanied by pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith.

Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds 1920. Standing Left to right: Ernest Elliot, Dope Andrews, Addington Major, Leroy Parker, seated at the piano: Willie “The Lion” Smith. Standing in the center: Mamie Smith

In 1920, Okeh Records invited Mamie Smith to record two songs: “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down”. The records sold well, and Okeh invited Smith to record again. In August 1920, she recorded “Crazy Blues,” a song written by Perry Bradford, an African American songwriter and bandleader. The song became an unexpected hit, selling more than 75,000 copies in its first month and becoming the first blues recording by an African American woman to be commercially successful.

Following the success of “Crazy Blues,” Mamie Smith recorded more than 100 songs for Okeh and other labels over the next several years. She recorded blues, jazz, and popular songs, often accompanied by top musicians of the day, including Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Her recordings helped to establish the blues as a popular genre and paved the way for other African American women to enter the recording industry.

Mamie Smith, 1920

In the late 1920s, Mamie Smith began to perform less frequently and eventually retired from music altogether. She focused on raising her children and managing her real estate investments. She remained active in her community and supported various charitable causes, including the NAACP.

Mamie Smith’s contributions to the music industry and African American culture are significant. Her recordings helped to popularize the blues and paved the way for other African American women to enter the recording industry. She also challenged racial stereotypes and paved the way for greater representation and opportunities for African American artists.

In recognition of her contributions, Mamie Smith was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. She is also recognized with a historical marker in her hometown of Cincinnati.  Mamie Smith died in Harlem in 1946.

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