Blues Legend Mamie Smith Gets Headstone on Previously Unmarked Grave
Michael Cala started the campaign while doing research for a book on Smith, the first black vocalist to record a blues song. Through his research, he realized that Smith had been lying in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in Staten Island, New York.
"This is our way of acknowledging how one woman threw open the doors," Cala said, adding, "Thousands upon thousands of blues and jazz recordings ... may never have been made without Mamie."
The fundraiser was so successful that he bought a $2,800 stone and donated $3,000 to the Frederick Douglass Memorial Park cemetery, which had been hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, for maintenance of other gravestones.
The marker was unveiled and dedicated Sept. 13, with Island-based singers Larry Marshall and Jeannine Otis performing at the ceremony. The 36-inch granite headstone has an etched picture of Smith near the administrative building of the cemetery. Cala also wrote an epitaph for the stone that notes her contribution to American music.
Smith's first song, "Crazy Blues," became a hit and sold 75,000 copies in one month, according to NPR. The success of the single, recorded for OKeh Records, prompted other companies to record other blues and jazz artists in the 1920s and early '30s, like Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith.
After her first hit, Smith continued touring and made other recordings, but none were as big as "Crazy Blues." Partly because of her lavish spending habits and the stock market crash, Smith died penniless and alone in 1946 in Harlem. She was buried in the Staten Island cemetery for free because the pastor who performed her internment was the owner.
"It was a long stretch of time to work on it, but I haven't forgotten her," Cala said. "I still want to solidify her reputation as a blues pioneer.”