100 Years Ago at Okeh: Mamie Smith Gets Her Break

100 Years Ago at Okeh: Mamie Smith Gets Her Break
By Allan Sutton

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.In February 1920*, a vaudeville blues singer named Mamie Smith showed up at the General Phonograph Corporation’s Okeh studio, in the company of songwriter and publisher Perry Bradford, having been rejected by Victor a month earlier. Bradford was shopping around two of his new titles  — “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down.”

Bradford recalled that Fred Hager, General Phonograph’s musical director, was interested in both songs, especially if Sophie Tucker would agree to record them for Okeh. She wouldn’t, so Bradford took a chance and instead pitched Mamie Smith to Hager, recalling:

“[I] handed Mr. Hager this new line of jive: ‘There’s a colored girl, the one I told you about up in Harlem. Well, she will do more with these songs than a monkey can do with a peanut; she sings jazz songs with more soulful feeling than other girls, for it’s only natural with us…

“May God bless Mr. Hager, for despite many threats, it took a man with plenty of nerve and guts to buck those powerful groups and make the historical decision which echoed aroun’ the world. He pried open that old ‘prejudiced door’…

“After Mamie finished recording ‘That Thing Called Love’ and ‘You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down’ that snowy morning in February 1920, I was itching to jump and yell, right there in the studio, ‘Hallelujah, it’s done!’ It was a happy moment, for I’d schemed and used up all my bag of tricks to get that date.”

Okeh initially did nothing to promote Mamie’s record, nor did it need to. During the five months it took the company to finally release the disc, Bradford made sure that news of the session reached The Chicago Defender and other black-owned newspapers, and word-of-mouth did the rest. When Okeh 4113 finally appeared in July, it found an eager audience.

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Okeh initially did nothing to promote Mamie Smith’s first release. By the time this ad appeared in the autumn of 1920, her second release, “Crazy Blues,” was on its way to becoming a hit, and Okeh was promoting her aggressively.

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The record’s release was a symbolic victory, if not a musical one. Accompanied by Okeh’s plodding Rega Orchestra (“Rega” being a pseudonym for Hager, as confirmed in the federal copyright registers), Mamie played it straight. There is little to distinguish her performances on these sides from those of Marion Harris and some other white comediennes of the period, who in turn were trying to sound a little black-ish.

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MAMIE SMITH: That Thing Called Love

New York: Probably February 10 or 18, 1920*
Okeh 4113 (mx. S-7275 – E)
Accompanied by the Rega Orchestra (house group directed by Fred Hager); Charles Hibbard, recording engineer

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MAMIE SMITH: You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down

New York: Probably February 10 or 18, 1920*
Okeh 4113 (mx. S-7276 – D)
Accompanied by the Rega Orchestra (house group directed by Fred Hager); Charles Hibbard, recording engineer

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That would all change six months later, when Mamie Smith returned to Okeh and cut loose on Bradford’s “Harlem Blues” (renamed “Crazy Blues” for the occasion, a hastily made decision that would come back to bite Bradford, and badly; but that’s a story for another post). This time she was accompanied by the Jazz Hounds, a raucous little band that Bradford had thrown together for the session. They sorely taxed recording engineer Charles Hibbard’s patience, Bradford recalled, but produced what is generally acknowledged as the first true blues recording — or, perhaps more accurately, the first blues-like recording by a black woman. Whichever take you prefer, there’s no disputing that Mamie Smith’s records sparked the early-1920s blue craze and resultant birth of the race-record industry, which would provide opportunities for black performers that had been undreamed-of a decade earlier..

* When Was Mamie Smith’s First Session?

Okeh’s recording files for this period have long-since been destroyed, so we have to rely on circumstantial evidence — in this case, the weather reports. Discographies traditionally put the date at Saturday, February 14, with no source cited. But that’s almost certainly a bad guess, if Bradford’s recollection of a “snowy morning” is accurate. The weather in Manhattan on the 14th was fair and dry, as it had been (and would continue to be) for much of the month. It did snow there on Tuesday the 10th and Wednesday the 18th — either date being a far more likely candidate than the sunny-and-mild 14th.

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Quoted excerpts are from Perry Bradford’s autobiography, Born with the Blues (New York: Oak Publications, 1965).