Mamie Smith wasn’t a blues singer. Today, however, we know her as one of the most influential figures in the creation of the blues music industry. So what exactly happened?
Smith began as a cabaret singer, but one fateful day in 1920, Sophie Tucker, another singer, coudln’t make it into Okeh Record’s recording studio. Smith was givena chance to ake her first recording, That Thing Called Love, and after that was recruited to make an another recording of a song called Crazy Blues. Though Smith was not by trade a blues singer, she made the record anyway. After it was released, the record sold over 75 000 copies in just a few months. This success is especially notable, as this record was the first recording of a blues song by a black singer.
In addition to being widely commercially successful, Crazy Blues has greater economic and social implications. This recording heralds the beginning of an entirely new music market. The popularity ofthe song caused the Okeh Records and several other labels to sign more black female blues singers to produce “race records”. Intially, these “race records” were sung by black musicians and were intended for black listeners, but soon the form of classic blues represented by these records became popular across racial lines. Mamie Smith’s record paved the way for countless black musicians to break into the blues market. Take five minutes and listen to noted activist Angela Davis talk about Mamie Smith’s significant contribution to the music industry in this interview with NPR’s “All Things Considered”.
Further evidence of the new blues craze can be found in this article from the December 18th, 1920 issue of he Washington Bee, an African American historical newspaper based in Washington D.C.. Situated neatly on the front page, this small notice of an upcoming performance at the Howard Theater exemplifies the excitement stirring around the new musical possibilities illuminated by Smith and her record. The author of the article heralds Smith as “one of the most-talked-of women who ever parter her lips to pour forth melodies…”. Not only does this article encapsulate Smith’s increasing fanbase, but also the uniqueness of her position in society. Smith, as a woman of color, was the highest paid among Okeh Records singers. This newfound ability to turn blues into money and record sales was profitable not only for musicians, but also for record companies and theaters. Companies began to find out that if they could contract a blues singer they could make a quick buck . This recording, and the subsequent boom in “race records” ushered in a entirely new and relatively untapped musical market. Before this record, music wasn’t being marketed toward black audiences. Rather, black folk music was idealized to fit white musical standards. While this recording and these newspaper articles may still reflect the capitalist pandering that musicians are so often wont to do, they also reflect a change in the way the msuci industry looked at its consumers. Mamie Smith and her record Crazy Blues opened up an entirely new market to the music industry while simultaneously creating a pop-culture phenomenon. And I think that’s worth noting.
“Smith, Mamie.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 10, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/41390..
“Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market.” NPR. November 11, 2006. Accessed October 10, 2017. http://www.npr.org/2006/11/11/6473116/mamie-smith-and-the-birth-of-the-blues-market.
Sultry Divas. Recorded September 30, 2008. Columbia River Entertainment, 2008, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 10, 2017. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/be%7Crecorded_cd%7Cli_upc_723723519221.