A New York blues writer has started his second INDIEGOGO campaign to raise funds to erect a headstone in New York City for African American blues singer ands pioneer MAMIE SMITH (1883-1946), who broke the race barrier by recording the first blues by an African American,"Crazy Blues," in August, 1920. It was the first time an all African American band backed an African American singer on record.
The record was a wild success, selling an estimated million copies in less than a year -- unheard of at the time!
The writer, Michael Cala, of Staten Island, New York, is a recent inductee into the New York Blues Hall of Fame in recognition of his dozen-plus years writing about blues music. He decided to mount the campaign while he was researching a book on the blues.
Says Cala,“I was interested in researching the recording side of the music business, and especially the “race record” phenomenon, for a book, when I came across Mamie’s unfortunate story. She did so much, and yet was barely recognized beyond her lifetime.”
Mamie Smith currently lies in unmarked ground in Frederick Douglass Memorial Park on Staten Island, and has been without a headstone or grave marker since her death in October, 1946 67 years ago.
So far, the campaign has attained 50% of its $6000 goal through its first 30-day campaign on Indiegogo.com.,
The new, active Website URL for contributions is titled A Headstone for Mamie Smith, Blues and Jazz Singer, and may be easily searched on Indiegogo.
Mamie worked with her Jazz Hounds, a group of African American musicians who were among the best blues and jazz musicians of the 1920s -- black or white. The Hounds included Willie the Lion Smith, Johnny Dunn, and Coleman Hawkins, among a stellar list of about 15 rotating musicians who performed with her live and on recordings.
Before this recording milestone occurred, record companies would not record African Americans singing blues or jazz, declaring that African Americans would not buy recordings. After Mamie’s record sales success, however, they started beating the bushes for talent, and that's how many artists from Louis Armstrong to Robert Johnson and Ma Rainey to Memphis Minnie and Victoria Spivey wound up on "race" record labels beginning in 1920 and beyond.
Without her incredible recording success, it may have taken 10 years or more for the record labels like OKEH, COLUMBIA, VICTOR, and PARAMOUNT to press records featuring significant African American blues and jazz talent. Many would have been lost to posterity if not for Mamie’s fortuitous success.
In 1970, Bessie Smith, lying likewise in an unmarked grave, was the beneficiary of generosity spearheaded by then-superstar Janis Joplin. The singer, together with Bessie Smith’s friend Juanita Green, bought the “Empress of the Blues” a headstone for her grave in downtown Philadelphia.
Erecting a headstone, says Cala, will recognize MAMIE SMITH as a catalyst for recording some of the great American blues and jazz artists of all time.