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Writer Continues Push to Buy Headstone for Famed Blues Singer

By Nicholas Rizzi | May 9, 2014 8:16am
Mamie Smith "Harlem Blues" 1935
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OAKWOOD — After an unsuccessful online campaign to raise money to buy an iconic blues singer a headstone, a Staten Island blues writer is trying again with a fundraising concert.

Michael Cala will host the event on July 20 at Killmeyer's Old Bavarian Inn, 4254 Arthur Kill Rd. It will feature 10 live blues bands and aim to raise the additional $4,500 to buy a headstone for Mamie Smith, who was buried at the Frederick Douglass Memorial Park cemetery in 1946.

"The fundraiser will bring us over the top," Cala said. "It will accomplish what I wanted, which was to do the stone and to contribute to the care fund at the Frederick Douglass Memorial Park."

In July, Cala raised $2,800 of the money needed to buy the gravestone and have it placed in the cemetery. He said he plans to start another online campaign to cover the rest of the monument's cost and raise money for the cash-strapped cemetery to help maintain the grounds.

"They really need it," he said. "None of the money is going to waste."

Smith was the first black vocalist to record a blues song, "Crazy Blues," which became a hit and sold 75,000 copies in a month, according to NPR. While she was considered one of the most popular blues singers of the day, Cala said she's largely been forgotten by history.

"It really got to me that she did so much yet she got such short shrift," said Cala, who's researching a book he's writing about Smith. "There's really not much but the basic biography."

The success of the single, recorded for OKeh records in 1921, served as the catalyst for companies to record other American blues and jazz artists in the '20s and early '30s, including Robert Johnson and Betsy Smith, Cala said.

"Mamie opened the door to the race record industry," Cala said. "If she hadn't recorded 'Crazy Blues' we could've waited another 10 years or more."

However, partly because the stock market crash dried up the market for singers and Smith's high spending habits, Cala said she died penniless and alone on Sept. 16, 1946 in Harlem. She was buried in the Staten Island cemetery for free because the pastor who did her interment was the owner.

Cala isn't the first fan of Smith's to try to mark her final resting place. A group of German fans bought a headstone for Smith when she died, but the monument never made it to the cemetery and Cala hasn't been able to find out what happened to it.

Several posts online claim to picture her headstone in the cemetery, but Cala said there's actually two other Mamie Smith's buried there and they belong to them.

Cala has already placed a down payment on a headstone for Smith, and is waiting to give final approval.

He's hoping it will be put in place on Sept. 16, the day she died.