In 1920, Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” breaking new ground as the first African-American artist to record a vocal blues track. In less than a year, “Crazy Blues” had sold more than a million copies and was almost single-handedly responsible for the rise in popularity of “race records” at the time. Working with her band the Jazz Hounds, which at times included the talents of Coleman Hawkins, Bob Fuller and Buster Bailey, amongst others, Smith continued to release popular records throughout the remainder of the 20s.
Despite her important achievements, when Smith passed away in Harlem in 1946 she was buried in an unmarked grave and her legacy has been pushed aside in favour of the bigger names of the era.
Now, writer Michael Cala is seeking to rectify this with an Indiegogo campaign to erect a headstone while also working on a biography of Smith and “Crazy Blues” writer Perry Bradford.
According to Cala, he started this campaign to get Smith the respect she deserves.
“When I saw how this pioneer had been shunted aside in a featureless grave—after the many doors she opened for fellow blues and jazz performers… I decided justice would dictate a respectful burial marker for Mamie Smith.”
Smith is not the only early blues pioneer to suffer such a fate. In 1970 Janis Joplin and a friend purchased a headstone for the grave of Bessie Smith, and similar campaigns have been mounted for a number of musicians in the ensuing decades.
Cala says that money and an itinerant lifestyle were the main contributors to this lack of recognition in death.
“Many entertainers who rose to the heights in the late 1910s and 1920s were rolling in money. Most of these folks had not had experience managing funds—so whether through being cheated by record company people and producers, high spending, or whatever—nobody saw that the peak of the music they were performing would drop.
You have to remember, too, that performers were by the nature of their profession, travelers. Peripatetic. They were on the road often, which didn’t make home and family a reality for many, so that in late life, there was nobody to care for them or to help manage their final affairs. Sad, given all the joy they have given us.”
Smith’s career gave rise to an entire industry and helped show the record labels that African-American music was commercially viable and artistically relevant, as such, she should be remembered and spoken of in the same breath as any of the other singers of her generation.
Cala theorizes that her lack of popularity is related to the comparisons drawn between her and the other singers of the time, “my theory is that she was not TECHNICALLY as good, nor STYLISTICALLY as raw, as many of the classic blues women… Mamie’s invidious comparison to women like Bessie or Ida Cox or Lucille Bogan is why the people who write the books—the critics and historians—may have ignored her, and therefore she remains in semi-obscurity despite a great career and her stunning recording feat in 1920.”
If you would like to be a part of the campaign to get Smith the recognition she deserves, visit the Indiegogo campaign HERE.