Mamie Smith made history when in 1920 she became the first African American singer to make a record of a Blues song, “Crazy Blues.” The record became a massive hit, changing the record industry and launching a new era of “race records” aimed at black listeners.
Born in 1883, Smith entered show business at the tender age of ten. She spent the next decade working in vaudeville as dancer and singer. At age 20 she married and settled down in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where she became a regular performer in night clubs.
On August 10, 1920, Smith filled in for an ailing Sophie Tucker, a white singer, at a recording session for Okeh Records. One of the songs she cut that day, "Crazy Blues," is widely viewed as the first Blues recording by an African-American artist. It became a million-selling sensation, thanks in part to the large numbers of copies sold in the African American community. This success surprised record companies, who had underestimated the potential of the African-American market. Quickly, record labels began making and marketing music specifically for African American audiences, opening the door to many classic and influential Blues and Jazz performances. Smith also opened the door to other prominent “Blues Women” of the 1920s, including Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
Smith made the most of her “Crazy Blues” success, touring frequently in the United States and Europe. She retired from performing in 1931, though beginning at the end of that decade she returned to appear in a string of films. She died in New York City in 1946