On this day in music history: November 11, 1920 – “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith And Her Jazz Hounds is released. Written by Perry Bradford, it is biggest hit for the singer, dancer and actress from Cincinnati, OH. Born Mamie Robinson, she begins her career as a dancer at the age of ten. Known as an all around performer, her talents also extend to singing and acting. She marries fellow singer William “Smitty” Smith in 1912. In 1918, Smith meets songwriter and vaudeville performer Perry Bradford. Bradford persuades Okeh Records’ A&R director Fred Hager to record Mamie Smith. The songwriter recommends her, when singer Sophie Tucker falls ill before a scheduled recording session. Before this, no African American singers had ever been recorded by the label. In spite of racist groups, vowing to boycott labels that record black musicians, Hager ignores the threats. Backed by a band of white musicians, Mamie Smith breaks the color barrier by recording “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down” on February 14, 1920. Just six months later, Mamie Smith records “Crazy Blues”. It’s cut at the Okeh Studios on August 10, 1920, with a band of black musicians called The Jazz Hounds. Though Bradford claims to have played piano on the track, photographs associated with the historic session, show stride piano icon Willie “The Lion” Smith at the piano. With the African Americans being under served, in terms of records out of their own culture being available, “Crazy Blues” is an instant sensation. In its first week, it sells over 10,000 copies, and more than 75,000 within its first month of release. In all, it is believed to have sold more than a million copies. Mamie Smith’s landmark recording, opens the door for more black musicians to attain mainstream success. Smith becomes a big star, continuing to record for Okeh through 1924. Switching to Ajax and Victor Records, they do not sell well. She continues to tour and perform in the US and Europe, before retiring in 1931. Her own fame is eclipsed by other blues vocal legends like Bessie Smith (no relation), Ma Rainey and others. Smith appears in several low budget films from 1939 to 1943. She makes her last public appearance in 1944, along side Billie Holiday. Falling ill, Smith spends the last two years of her life in a Harlem hospital. She dies in 1946, and is buried in an unmarked grave. It is believed that she was penniless at the time of her death. With the help of West German blues fans, money is raised to purchase a headstone for Smith in 1963. Blues singer Victoria Spivey and Len Kunstadt have her re-interred at Frederick Douglass Memorial Park in Richmond, NY, on January 27, 1964. “Crazy Blues” is later honored when it is inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1994, and is selected for preservation by the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2005.
On this day in music history: October 23, 2001 – “Screamin’ And Hollerin’ The Blues: The Worlds Of Charley Patton” by Charley Patton is released. Compilation Producer: Dean Blackwood. The seven CD, one hundred forty four track box set collects the complete works of legendary Mississippi Delta blues musician Charley Patton (1891 – 1934) recorded for the Paramount and Vocalion labels between June 1929 and February 1934. The compilation has its genesis in a biography written by Patton biographer and delta blues historian John Fahey in 1970. Having only recorded for a brief five years before dying prematurely at the age of forty three, Patton is largely forgotten about, other than by blues historians and fans who are aware of his legend. With the assistance of business partner Dean Blackwood, Fahey set about putting together the definitive word on Patton, forming the label Revenant Records. The process of compiling the recordings proves to be a very long and arduous process. The bluesman’s original label Paramount Records being a relatively low budget operation, goes out of business during The Depression in the 1930’s. All of the original metal masters of Charley Patton’s recordings are destroyed or sold for scrap after their demise. Paramount’s records were pressed on relatively poor quality shellac 78 RPM discs, with even the best copies exhibiting prodigious surface noise. Nearly eighty years later, only handful of surviving copies, or just one original copy remains, often in rough condition. With minimal clean up (to prevent losing too much of the recordings original sonics) and speed correction, they are carefully digitally remastered for the best possible sound quality. Sadly, John Fahey passes away in February of 2001 eight months before the set is released, which is dedicated to his memory. The lavishly produced set comes in a 11" x 13" x 3.5" cloth-bound slipcase box (with title graphics embossed in gold ink), with a 78 RPM single binder housed inside. Inside the front cover is a paperback copy of Fahey’s biography on Charley Patton with an extensively annotated one hundred twenty eight page book, with reproductions of original newspaper ads advertising Patton’s singles. The CD’s themselves attached to 10" cardboard replicas of Paramount and Vocalion label 78’s, and stored in reproductions of the original company paper sleeves. The box also comes with a complete set of Paramount and Vocalion label singles printed on stickers. In spite of its $200 plus price tag, it is released to an enthusiastic response by blues aficionados, and actually sells out, turning it an instant collectors item. “Screamin’ And Hollerin The Blues” wins three Grammy Awards in 2003 for Best Historical Album, Best Album Notes and Best Boxed Or Special Limited Edition Package.