STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — The long-unmarked Oakwood gravesite of chart-topping blues singer Mamie Smith (1883-1946) finally received a fondly inscribed headstone, thanks to the efforts of local fans.
The marker was unveiled and dedicated Saturday, Sept. 13, in Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, 3201 Amboy Road. Island-based singers Larry Marshall and Jeannine Otis performed soulful tributes at the ceremony, along with guitarist Big Frank Mirra and harmonica player Mike Smith.
The campaign to identify
Smith's final resting place began last year when Grasmere music journalist Michael Cala stumbled upon a biographical entry about the singer, whose 1920 record "Crazy Blues" broke the industry's race barrier, and shipped one million copies.
The bio mentioned the unmarked gravesite. Cala visited the cemetery, consulted the records and located the plot.
Afterward, he launched a fundraising effort that culminated last July in a six-hour concert last at Killmeyer's Old Bavaria Inn in Charleston. Proceeds covered the cost of a marker and a maintenance fund,
The headstone honors Smith's convention-smashing contribution. "This is our way of acknowledging how one woman threw open the doors," Cala said, adding, "Thousands upon thousands of blues and jazz recordings that may never have been made without Mamie."
Among her successors were Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Smith continued touring and made other recordings but none were as big as "Crazy Blues." Apparently, she was impoverished when she died in Harlem, her home for many years, in 1946.
Coincidentally, Mamie Smith's near contemporary, Bessie Smith (1894-1935), considered the greatest blues singer of the era, was also interred in an unmarked plot. An admirer, blues/rock singer Janis Joplin (1943-1970), commissioned the stone that marks her grave today in Sharon Hill, Pa.