Mamie Smith: Always “The First Lady of the Blues”

A beautiful portrait of Mamie Smith graced the entire cover of Leonard Kunstadt’s legendary publication Record Research in January 1964. The portrait by famed Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee shows a smiling Mamie Smith in profile, wearing a necklace of large black stones (or seeds). Not only was there a lavishly illustrated article written by Kunstadt (“Mamie Smith the First Lady of the Blues”), there was also an article in the same issue by Len Kunstadt’s companion, blues singer Victoria Spivey, entitled, “I Knew Mamie Smith,” which recounted Ms. Spivey seeing Mamie Smith in Houston’s City Auditorium dressed sequins and rhinestones with a velvet cape with white fur. “And when she sang she tore the house down . . . I remember that her second wardrobe was a gold metallic dress. Her full voice filled the entire auditorium without the use of mikes like we use today. That was singing the blues! I was really inspired and I kept plugging to become a blues singer.” This issue of Record Research was instrumental in acknowledging the fact that, as the first African American vocalist to record the blues in 1920, Mamie Smith’s unmarked grave at Frederick Douglass Cemetery on Staten Island was an egregious lapse of world consciousness that needed to be corrected. Victoria Spivey recounted meeting husband and wife Gunter and Lore Boas in Germany during her September 196
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David W. McCain, a native of New Orleans, parlayed an interest in the female singers of the past into a lifetime of scholarship. He befriended and interviewed Teddy Grace and his fascination with the artistry of the Boswell Sisters prompted him to meet Vet Boswell in 1977. He collaborated with Vet’s granddaughter, Kyla Titus, to publish the sisters’ biography The Boswell Legacy in 2014. A documentary on the Boswell Sisters, Close Harmony, has recently been completed.

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