FEATURE | BLUES WOMEN
train travel represents another cultural change associated with emancipation. The thriving 1920’s railroad industry also provided many job opportunities for African Americans. Mamie Smith was responsible for defining the image of a female blues singer. She wore extravagant dresses and elaborate jewellery onstage and was billed as ‘The Queen of The Blues”. This billing was soon one-upped by Bessie Smith who crowned herself “The Empress of The Blues”. During the Harlem Renaissance Era, these women helped to redefine the stereotypical image of African American Women. No longer peasants in the rural south, but glamorous, proud, respected and hugely talented urban woman. Through her wonderful self-expression, Mamie Smith challenged racial stereotypes which would set the stage for the civil rights movement.
Between 1920 and 1931, Smith earned an estimated $100,000 (about $1.3 M today) in royalties from her 95 recorded songs on OKeh and Victor records. Her earnings allowed her to drive fancy cars and invest in the latest fashions. Fashion designer Madame Hammer created most of Mamie Smith’s stage gowns. Smith would appear on stage in luxurious silk, trimmed with silver and roses, with ostrich feather headdresses and fans to match.
She was beautifully accessorised with diamonds and pearls. The Hamilton Evening Journal described her dresses as “riots of color and beauty.” Mamie spoke of her stage clothes in a 1921 interview: “I feel my audiences want to see me becomingly gowned, and I have spared no expense or pains in frequenting the shops of the most fashionable modists in America, with the results that I believe my audience will like … as much as I do, for I feel that the best is none too good for the public that pays to hear a singer.” It is said that her fans would send offerings of jewellery and marriage proposals to the Okeh Record Label office.
Following the success of Crazy Blues, composer Perry Bradford became Smith’s manager, or-
ganising tours and scheduling future recording sessions. Smith embarked on extended tours of America, performing sell-out concerts. In February 1921, the Chattanooga News declared she had sold out the Billy Sunday Tabernacle in Norfolk, Virginia, to a record crowd of over 9,000 people. They added that “so many were turned away… (she was) obliged to return to Norfolk twice.”
Smith took pride in returning to her hometown for a sold-out concert at the big auditorium stage of Cincinnati Music Hall. The venue was just eight blocks from the house she grew up in, and it was usually reserved for white artists of huge international acclaim. Smith took to the stage with her Jazz Hounds and enraptured her crowd. In 1921, a month before the show, she spoke to The Dallas Express Newspaper with excitement: “I realize that these thousands of people who come to hear me at my concerts, expect much, and I do not intend that they shall be disappointed. They have heard my phonograph records and they want to hear me sing these songs the same as I do in my own studio in New York. For that reason, I am taking with me my original Jazz Hounds, who are in my opinion, the finest players of syncopated music in the world today.”
In the April of 1921, Mamie Smith was booked to perform a Saturday night concert at Richmond’s Coliseum. The local newspaper stated, “the company comes to Richmond heralded as an attraction meriting the combined patronage of white and colored folks alike.” Her musical talent was bringing white and black people together for a shared enjoyment of the same great music. Sadly, her performances were mostly segregated by seating arrangements such as reserving lower floor seats for white fans while her black fans enjoyed the music from the balconies.
In Birmingham, Alabama, there were further racial extremities with performance nights kept separate for white and black crowds. Still, Mamie Smith paved the way: the shared love