Tornadoes had swept the south, and a blizzard gripped the western states on April 16, 1921, when Mamie Smith, born in Cincinnati, returned home to perform in Cincinnati Music Hall, hot off the wild success of her first recordings, made just a few months prior — the first by a Black female artist in a new style called “the Blues.”
Rarely had African American artists headlined on the Springer Auditorium stage and it would not be until 1928 that Black musicians would regularly perform in the South Hall ballroom. Mamie Smith’s homecoming was in Cincinnati’s premier venue, reserved nearly exclusively for white artists of the highest international status and acclaim, such as Adelina Patti, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, and Enrico Caruso. Smith was announced the world over as the “Queen of the Blues” and defined the genre for countless performers who followed in her footsteps. But for the girl who grew up eight blocks south of Music Hall on Perry Street, the validation and acclaim of this performance at Music Hall must have been as warm and breezy as the perfect weather in Cincinnati that day and as righteous as the blossoming Jazz Age.
Skyrocketing to Stardom
Mamie Smith’s sold-out performance undoubtedly included her first recorded sensations: “That Thing Called Love,” “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” “It’s Right Here for You,” “Fare Thee Honey Blues,” and her number-one hit, “Crazy Blues.” Her second record, Crazy Blues, included the debut of her all-Black band, the Jazz Hounds. Recorded on August 10, 1920, on OKeh records, Crazy Blues was the first record to be specifically marketed to Black listeners. It sold 75,000 copies in the first month and more than a million copies that year, skyrocketing her to stardom.
Smith’s Saturday matinee and evening performances at Music Hall were just another stop on one of many extended tours across the U.S.A. The Richmond Item newspaper advertisement for her concert on the following Saturday, April 23, declared crowds were turned away in Cincinnati, Dayton, and Indianapolis. Her show came with an extravagant all-star revue: a cast of numerous well-known Black artists, including singers, actors, jugglers, and comedians who opened the concert. After a five-minute intermission, Smith took the stage with her Jazz Hounds and blew the audience away.
Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds
In an interview with the Dallas Express the previous month, Smith said, “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.” Jazz Hounds players in Smith’s concert at Music Hall likely included Ward “Dope” Andrews on trombone, LeRoy Parker on violin, Ernest “Stickie” Elliott on clarinet, Johnny Dunn on cornet, Addington Major on trumpet, and Porter Grainger on piano. Jazz legends: saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith, trumpeter Bubber Miley, and clarinetist Buster Bailey, were also alumni of Smith’s band.
On the Road
In the 1920s and ’30s Smith’s show had weekly stops at major cities and smaller towns between, each September through May. In 1921 she was on the road continuously, bouncing from the South: Goldsboro, North Carolina; Norfolk, Virginia; Savannah, Georgia; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Paducah, Kentucky, up to the Midwest: Chicago and Indianapolis, to the West: Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, then back to Chicago, Dayton, Cincinnati; Richmond, Indiana; Hamilton, Ohio, and again to Chicago, and Gary, Indiana.
She ended the tour in South Bend, Indiana, where she closed the Oliver Theater for the summer months with “several encores … (for the) correct renditions of modern jazz,” stated the News-Times Dispatch. Mamie spent the summer of 1921 recording 17 new songs in the OKeh studio in New York. In September, she started her next tour, booked by the Standard Amusement Company of New York, taking her to venues between New Haven and Boston, to Florida and the Pacific coast.
Black and White Fans
Mamie Smith’s audience most assuredly included thousands of Black and white fans of her records. Newspapers across the country announced that Smith and her Jazz Hounds received countless curtain calls night after night with seats selling from 50¢ to $2.50 (the equivalent of $7 to $30 today). The Chattanooga News announced her arrival February 14, 1921, at their Billy Sunday Tabernacle, and declared she had sold out the Billy Sunday Tabernacle in Norfolk, Virginia, to a record crowd of over 9,000; “so many were turned away … (she was) obliged to return to Norfolk twice.” After Ray H. Weisbrod, owner of Weisbrod Music Company in Richmond, Indiana, saw her and the Jazz Hounds with the Jazz Revue perform in Dayton’s Memorial Hall, Friday, April 15, 1921, he paid the $1,000 fee to bring them to Richmond’s Coliseum on Saturday night, April 23. The Richmond Item stated, “the company comes to Richmond heralded as an attraction meriting the combined patronage of white and colored folks alike.” The paper mistakenly noted the company was coming from, “Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis where they played to capacity houses” — it was Cincinnati, not Columbus.
Smith’s invariably sold-out audiences were diverse, but often segregated, either by performance nights or seating arrangements. For example, at the Temple Theater in Little Rock, Arkansas, lower floor seats were reserved for white people ($1.50) and the balcony seats for Black people ($1). In Birmingham, Alabama, the week of December 19-24, the Monday midnight show, Saturday matinee and evening performances were reserved for “white persons only,” while Black audiences could attend Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday performances. It is likely her concert in Music Hall also had unspoken segregated seating. An article in The Chattanooga News for her February 14, 1921, concert there, Wallace Sims wrote into the paper after seeing the concert advertised for white people only and mentioned a circular distributed stating 6,000 seats were reserved for Black concertgoers. Sims is quoted in the paper asking to make it clear that all Black people are invited and that every Black “man, woman or child … wants to hear this concert … as she is the first and only one to attain the distinction of making gramophone records … (and) uplift(s) our race.” He believed Smith was an example who showed children what they could accomplish, “if they make up their minds.”
Smith’s appearance in Music Hall was seemingly only the second time an African American singer appeared on the Springer Auditorium stage as a solo act, up to that time. Acclaimed soprano Sissieretta Jones sang two performances there in 1893. Perhaps it was a dream come true to perform in Cincinnati Music Hall — it had been standing for 12 years before Mamie was born in Cincinnati on September 16, 1891*, as Mamie Robinson. Her mother Amanda Havey hailed from Kentucky and married Benjamin Robinson, a porter, from Canada, in 1875. They lived downtown at 14 Perry Street when Mamie was born (a block south of today’s Duke Energy Convention Center, her birthplace is no longer standing). Two separate birth records with the same birth date, same parents, same address, and same midwife, indicate Mamie Robinson’s birth name may have been “Mary R.”
The Robinsons are not listed at the Perry address in the 1891 or 1892 city directories, but there are several people at that address from barbers to porters to a hod-carrier and a white-washer, so it can be assumed they lived in the three-and-a-half story boarding house where not everyone was listed. The Perry Street block was home to diverse working-class families in boarding houses as well as businesses including Fleischmann’s Yeast company offices on the northeast corner, J.A. Simpkinson’s boot and shoe manufacturing, and a carpentry shop on the southwest corner. (Mamie Smith would later sing on the NBC radio variety show named for its sponsor Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour.) Mamie’s only sibling, a brother, Doc, born in 1894, moved to Columbus, Ohio, married in 1915, and had no children. Mamie’s father, Benjamin Robinson passed away in 1904. Her mother, Amanda Robinson had moved to New York City by 1920, probably to live at her daughter’s luxurious home at 130th Street or an apartment at 55 Nicholas Avenue in West Harlem. The Chicago Defender, in 1939, stated she was the first Harlem entertainer to buy real estate.
Not much is known about Mamie Robinson’s early life in Cincinnati. An article in The Times Dispatch of Richmond, Virginia, in 1921, stated she was, “born in Cincinnati and educated in the public schools of that city.” If she went to a public school in downtown Cincinnati, it was most likely the Western District Elementary School (1859-1901) for African American children on Court Street between John and Mound, which would have been a ten-minute walk north. Or she could have attended the Fifth District public school two blocks south from her home on Third Street between Plum and Elm streets. Although, the State of Ohio repealed “Black Laws” in 1887, opening white public schools to Black students, de facto segregation continued, and the Western District and Eastern District downtown public schools were where most Black children continued to attend, preferring to be taught by Black teachers and avoiding racial violence. Mamie Robinson could have also gone to Walnut Hills to attend the public Frederick Douglass School (est. 1872, renamed 1902). An article in The Dallas Express stated she went to high school in St. Louis, Missouri. And when an interviewer with the Kansas Blade came backstage and asked if she was a native of St. Louis, she only laughed and replied, “every city in the country had laid claim to being her birthplace.”
Mamie Robinson did not have much time to grow up in Cincinnati. She started in show business at the age of ten. One biographer wrote, “She has known the stage since childhood,” and, “At an age when children are playing aimlessly on front pavements Mamie was singing and dancing on the vaudeville circuit with the ‘Dancing Mitchells’ and the ‘Smart Set’.” While in the “Smart Set” company, at the age of 16, she met and married fellow performer Sam P. Gardner. In vaudeville she was a “triple-threat”: an accomplished dancer, actress, and singer. Her stage persona was as appealing as her sweet contralto voice.
Throughout the United States, a multitude of vaudeville shows and theaters came and went in popularity from the late 1890s through the 1920s and were predominantly run by white managers. Despite their poor treatment, Black performers, especially singers and musicians, rose through the ranks and many to fame and fortune. Black actors with experience became producers and managers themselves and began to create opportunities for more Black artists in Black companies, laying the foundation of the Black entertainment industry.
The Smart Set Companies
One of the most successful of these early entrepreneurs was S.H. (Sherman Houston) Dudley. In 1904, he took the lead role in the “Smart Set” company, performing in musicals through 1912, when he began purchasing and leasing his own theaters. In cooperation with other Black-owned and -managed theaters, in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and as far south as Atlanta, he developed a Black vaudeville circuit of 23 theaters, referred to as Dudley’s Circuit. Likewise, around 1910, brothers Salem Tutt Whitney and J. Homer Tutt transitioned from actors to managers of the Lincoln Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Mamie and Sam Gardner’s names appeared in newspapers advertising the “Lincoln Theater Stock Company.” They also performed in the “Southern Smart Set Company” and “The Smart Set: Headed by Salem Tutt Whitney.”
New York, New York
Following Mamie and Sam Gardner’s divorce in 1912, Mamie Gardner traveled with Tutt Whitney’s “Smart Set” company to New York City, to perform at the Lafayette Theater (on Dudley’s Circuit). She decided to stay after the run and made a living while honing her skills singing in cabarets at dozens of popular Harlem clubs, including: Percy Brown’s, John Conner’s Royal Garden, Jerry Preston’s, Daddy Wood’s, Ed Small’s Sugar Cane, Kid Bank’s, Charles Digg’s, and the Garden of Joy. In New York, Mamie married William “Smitty” Smith, also a night club singer, changing her last name permanently to Smith. She was married two more times, to band manager, Ocey (Ossey) Wilson (1921), and film producer Jack Goldberg (1929). She never had children.
In the summer of 1918 Mamie Smith was hired by Perry Bradford, actor, dancer, pianist, singer, and songwriter to perform his compositions in the Harlem Lincoln Theater Revue, Made in Harlem. Smith’s rendition of Bradford’s “Harlem Blues” was the hit of the show, which he reworked as “Crazy Blues.”
Perry Bradford and OKeh Records
Knowing that he had a hit on his hands with Mamie, Bradford convinced Frederick Hager, the white director of artists and repertoire (A&R) at OKeh Records, to take a risk and record an African American singer, despite the racist push-back he was sure to get. When Hager agreed to record Bradford’s blues songs, he first asked for white vaudeville singer, Sophie Tucker, but she was under contract with Vocalion and could not record for OKeh. Between 1915 and 1917, there were only four vocal recordings with “blues” in the title (“Memphis Blues,” Morton Harvey; “Homesickness Blues,” Nora Bayes; “Paradise Blues,” Marion Harris; “Dallas Blues,” Marie Cahill) recorded by other white vaudeville singers, but none had the soulful style that Mamie Smith possessed. On February 14, 1920, she recorded Bradford’s “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” with the all-white house orchestra led by Fred Hager under the pseudonym Milo Rega. Her first record was marginally successful, but six months later, on August 10, 1920, her recording, Crazy Blues, with her hand-picked all-Black Jazz Hounds was a runaway success. Perry Bradford became Smith’s manager, organized tours, scheduled future recording sessions and started his own publishing and music management business raking in a small fortune in royalties.
Wealth and Fame
She also became wealthy, as one of very few successful Black female performers. Her average fee was $1,000 ($13,000 today) for weekly performances. Between 1920 and 1931 she earned an estimated $100,000 ($1.3 M today) in royalties from the 95 songs recorded, 89 on OKeh and 6 on Victor. Her dresses were from New York and Paris and received as much attention as her singing. Fashion designer Madame Hammer created Mamie Smith’s stage gowns specifically, “fitting the individuality of the star and the various songs which she sings on her program.” The Dayton Daily News, said the audience hoped to see her dresses in a concert there at Memorial Hall on April 15, 1921, including her favorite (likely worn in Music Hall the next evening) made of white silk trimmed with silver and American Beauty Roses, with an ostrich feather head dress and fan to match.
The Hamilton Evening Journal, expecting Mamie Smith on April 25 at the Jefferson Theatre, excited audiences by describing her dresses as “riots of color and beauty.” The Dallas Express quoted an interview from Norfolk, Virginia, in which she said,
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.
She accessorized with beautiful jewelry as well, from diamonds to pearls. Her fans sent daily offerings of money, jewelry, and marriage proposals to the OKeh Records’ office.
In a 1923 article in the Pittsburgh Courier, a lucky reporter got backstage after a concert in Philadelphia to ask of Mamie how she spent her leisure hours. She “declared she enjoyed the quiet of her New York home and (was) very fond of fiction.” But her husband and manager, Ossey Wilson, chimed in laughing,
The thing she likes to do above everything else in the world is to drive that Lincoln machine of hers, and really I have never seen a more skillful woman driver. She has been driving three years and has only had one accident, and that occurred when she ran the car into me one day. I’m still wondering though if that was really an accident.
Mamie Smith Returns to Cincinnati Theaters
A few months after her Music Hall debut, Mamie Smith returned to Cincinnati for one night only on November 9, 1921, with the All-Star Jazz Revue at the Lyceum Theatre, on Central Avenue between Fourth and Fifth streets. The Lyceum Theatre had often presented the “Smart Set” touring company between 1904 and 1917. Built as Thoms Hall in the 1830s, it had numerous name changes in the 19th century (Havlin’s Theatre, 1882; Freeman Theatre, 1895; Star Theatre, 1896; Lyceum Theatre, 1899) and became an exclusively African American theater by 1917. The 1891 Sanborn map shows the theater just down the street from her birthplace on Perry Street. About her arrival at the Lyceum, The Union, Cincinnati’s African American newspaper declared,
Mamie has done more than any other singer perhaps in America to popularize the genuine ‘blues’ songs of the day. In her hands a song like 'Crazy Blues' … becomes (a) living, potent thing, charged with pulsing and individual rhythm … never before equaled by any singer of this type in this country … Night after night this new star has been greeted by capacity houses … all indications point to a sold-out house.
Smith would return to Cincinnati one more time the week of March 26-April 2, 1927, to sing at the Roosevelt Theatre, which replaced the Lyceum Theatre when it was razed in 1922. The Roosevelt stood until 1960, to make way for the construction of I-75, and the owner moved operations to the Regal Theater on Linn Street. Smith’s final appearances in Cincinnati were on the big screen at the Regal. In 1945 it showed Paradise in Harlem (the first of her four films), in which she sang with King Records Recording Artist, Lucky Millinder.Although Smith owned homes in New York City, a lavish wardrobe, gold securities, and one of the most splendid automobiles of the day, she lost most everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Floyd Grant Snelson of the Chicago Defender wrote, “She lived off charity of friends until her death” in a Harlem hospital on October 30, 1946 and was buried in Frederick Douglass Memorial Park on Staten Island in an unmarked grave, which finally received a headstone in 2014.
Mamie Smith defined classic blues. Her success inspired and empowered generations of performers and helped establish the preeminence of African American traditions in popular culture. She and her manager Perry Bradford pioneered the first recordings designed, advertised, and sold to Black communities, tapping a huge new market for what were called “race records.” Her recordings gave voice to African American composers and lyricists, including Perry Bradford, James Timothy “Tim” Brymn, Clarence Williams, Christopher M. Smith, Henry Creamer, and Jay Cee “J.C.” Johnson. As the first Black woman to record blues, Mamie Smith introduced the sound of a strong independent female to the world and paved the way for all who followed, including legends such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Clara Smith, Ida Cox, Florence Mills, Lucille Hegamin, Trixie Smith, Mary Stafford, Alberta Hunter, Rosa Henderson, Gertrude Saunders, and Victoria Spivey. Mamie Smith’s April 1921 concert in Cincinnati Music Hall is among the most important musical events ever presented on the Springer Auditorium stage, and in an era of intolerance, was one of the rare occasions where music superseded racial division.
What introduced the “beat” to the world?
The answer is — Mamie Smith and the Jazz Hounds on the OKeh record.
The answer is — Mamie Smith and the Jazz Hounds on the OKeh record.
—Noble Sissle, Sr.
Introduction to Perry Bradford’s autobiography, Born with the Blues, Oak Pub., New York, 1965.
Thea Tjepkema is a member of the Friends of Music Hall Board of Directors as historic preservationist, content curator, and archivist.
Thank you for assistance and inspiration:
Chris Hanlin, John Morris Russell, and Rick Pender, editor.
Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Random House, Inc., New York, 1998.Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Harlem Renaissance Lives: From the African American National Biography, Oxford University Press, Inc., New York, 2009. David A. Jasen and Gene Jones, Spreadin’ Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930, Schirmer Books, New York, 1998.
Cincinnati Music Hall, c. 1917-1927, Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library
Mamie Smith, Apeda Studio, N.Y.
*John Jeremiah Sullivan, New York Times magazine journalist, cited Mamie Robinson birth date in 2018.
**Ad, The Union, April 12 (16), 1921, Vol. 16, Number 20, p.1: “Mamie Smith in Music Hall Matinee and Evening, Saturday, April 14 (16), 1921.”