100 Years of “Crazy Blues”: The Story Behind Mamie Smith’s Classic
The landmark blues track was recorded a century ago, but its legacy lives on.
Along with jazz, blues has been called a quintessentially American art form. Only in the United States could such a melting pot of influences converge so perfectly, breathing life into a musical expression that would go on to change the world. To this day, blues remains a pivotal influence on modern music and beyond. When most people think of earlier blues music, a few names immediately come to mind.
Robert Johnson and his pact with the devil, Blind Willie Johnson and his transcendental religious blues, or W.C. Handy’s Tin Pan Alley compositions in 1912 Memphis: the list goes on. However, you should go even further back in time to find the origins of recorded blues. Before the “Delta Blues” phenomenon in the 30s, blues songs were popular vaudevillian staples, often performed by bigger jazz ensembles, in sharp contrast with the bar-bones guitar/vocals style made popular by Delta performers.
The iconic “Crazy Blues” is a great example. Recorded in 1920 and released by Okeh Records, this song stands out as possibly the very first vocal blues record made by an African American woman. Vocalist such as Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Ida Cox influenced many female performers to follow in her footsteps, but this number goes way beyond that, with some people hailing it as the first proper blues record ever distributed commercially.
A singer, actress, and musician, Mamie Smith was a proficient jazz vocalist. She had been performing ever since she was a child, literally spending a majority of her life in the entertainment industry.
Although “Crazy Blues” was not her first record, it was one of her most successful studio efforts, selling around 75.000 copies at the time of its release. The sales were incredibly impressive for a niche record of that era. The prejudice of the record industry at the time believed the so called “race records” would only appeal to a small segment of the market, as they believed it would only resonate with an African American audience.
They were very wrong.
The singer’s popularity eventually transcended race barriers and pave the way for an integrated breakthrough in American music. Unfortunately, Smith passed away in 1946, aged 55 and without a dime to her name. “The first Lady of The Blues” was initially buried in an unmarked grave. Since then, fellow blues musicians managed to raise enough money to buy a headstone for the singer. Today, the song’s legacy leaves on, as the track made its way into the Grammy Hall of Fame due to its historical significance.