Mamie Gardener began her career in show business as a dancer with the Four Dancing Mitchells. By 1910, Smith was touring the Midwest and East Coast with the Smart Set Company, a Black minstrel troupe. She married singer William “Smitty” Smith in 1912. The couple moved to New York where she began working as a cabaret dancer, pianist, and singer. Her first major break came in 1918, when she appeared in Perry Bradford’s musical “Made in Harlem.”
Though technically not a blues performer, Mamie Smith notched her place in American music as the first Black female singer to record a vocal blues. This first recording session was an accident; she was filling in for Sophie Tucker, but the success of the record made her wealthy. That record was “Crazy Blues” (recorded August 10, 1920), which sold a million copies in its first six months and made record labels aware of the huge potential market for “race records.” This paved the way for Bessie Smith (no relation) and other blues and jazz performers. Smith was an entertainer who had a powerful, penetrating, feminine voice with belting vaudeville qualities, added to blues inflections.
In the 1930s, Smith began touring and recording with a band called the Jazz Hounds, which featured such jazz notables as Coleman Hawkins, Bubber Miley, Johnny Dunn, and more; she toured with the bands of Andy Kirk and Fats Pichon. She appeared in some films, including “Paradise in Harlem” late in her life (1939)