When Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920, she broke the recording industry’s race barrier as the first African American to record the blues. The song sold an astounding 75,000 copies within a month of its release. Suddenly major record companies became hungry for African American blues and jazz performers to record – and for the cash that poured in from record purchases made by black Americans.
In a few short years following Mamie’s hit, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and dozens of others would become recording industry stars.
Despite great fame during her lifetime, Mamie’s important contribution faded to a mere footnote in American music history. While the obituary headline declared Mamie the “Mother of the Blues” when she died in Harlem in1946 at age 63, her remains were transported to the farthest reaches of New York City and unceremoniously buried in the Frederick Douglass Memorial Park on Staten Island.
There she has remained in obscurity in an unmarked grave for nearly 68 years.
This September that will all change thanks to an outpouring of support from blues lovers around the world who are poised to give Mamie Smith a send-off that is long overdue.
The successful “Headstone for Mamie Smith” online campaign was launched in early 2013 by New York blues journalist Michael Cala. He said he discovered Mamie’s “unfortunate story” while he was “researching the recording side of the music business, especially the ‘race record’ phenomenon, for a book.”
He was amazed to discover that he lives just a few miles from her anonymous burial spot in an historic African American cemetery where other notable people of color were similarly buried in donated plots.
Now, with the help of fellow blues aficionados, musicians and deejays, Cala is gearing up for “Blues for Mamie,” a live blues fund-raiser on Sunday, July 20th -- fittingly at Killmeyer’s (www.killmeyers.com), a Staten Island tavern in operation since 1890.
Mamie was just 10 years old in 1893 when she left her tough neighborhood in Cincinnati to go on the road with a touring vaudeville group, eventually landing in Harlem. There she was spotted by composer Perry Bradford who doggedly championed his blues-singing protégé to the record companies and ultimately to her historic 1920 hit.
The six-hour “Blues for Mamie” show, hosted by WFDU-FM deejay and singer Nikki Armstrong features some of the biggest names in blues and jazz, including Michael Hill, Rob Paparozzi, Dave Fields, Robert Ross, Michael Packer and Queen Esther. Spoken-word artist Mo Beasley will perform a tribute to Mamie Smith; bassist/composer Pete Cummings is the event’s musical director.
Tickets are $20 at the door or $14 in advance at http://mamie.bpt.me. The site also has a complete description of the concert, performers, and a link to the venue.
Proceeds from the online Indiegogo drive http://igg.me/at/mamie3, “Blues for Mamie” ticket sales, and raffles of Mamie-related art and ephemera at the concert will fund the completion of the three-foot-tall granite monument to Mamie now in production. It features an etched photographic portrait of the singer and a fitting epitaph noting her important contribution to recorded American music history.
The stone will be unveiled at a graveside ceremony on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014 – three days before the 68th anniversary of her death. Proceeds will also be used to establish a much needed maintenance fund for her gravesite at Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, as well as other gravesites in need.
Cala also notes that “Crazy Blues” by “Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds” was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994; in 2005, it was selected for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress, commonly known as the “National Jukebox.” http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/4900/
Yet, despite the flurry of attention in the last two decades, Mamie’s grave continued to remain barren, Cala pointed out. “She did so much, and yet was barely recognized beyond her own lifetime.”
“This is our way of acknowledging how one woman threw open the doors so that posterity could enjoy the thousands upon thousands of blues and jazz recordings that may never have been made without Mamie.”
MAMIE'S PAGE: https://www.facebook.com/mamiespage
Contact: Michael Cala · 646.732.8466 · email@example.com · @mick655
For more information on the July 20th concert, the headstone effort and Mamie, go to https://www.facebook.com/mamiespage
The live Indiegogo fundraising campaign is located at: http://igg.me/at/mamie3
For a comprehensive backgrounder on Mamie Smith, the blues and the recording industry of the 1920s visit: http://jasobrecht.com/mamie-smith-the-first-lady-of-the-blues/
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Playing Since: 2001
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I'm a science writer who also writes for BLUES MUSIC MAGAZINE, and wrote for Bles Revue and Sing Out! for almost a dozen years. I'm an intermediate clawhammer player, self-taught -- and would enjoy playing with others of similar skills. I'm also a huge blues and gospel fan -- special interests are sacred steel and classic gospel.
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