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Blues Singer's Unmarked Grave Gets Headstone Thanks to Writer's Campaign

By Nicholas Rizzi | December 17, 2014 10:25am
 Writer Michael Cala raised money to buy a headstone for blues singer Mamie Smith.
Writer Michael Cala raised money to buy a headstone for blues singer Mamie Smith.
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DNAinfo/Nicholas Rizzi

RICHMOND TOWN — A groundbreaking blues singer whose body lay in an unmarked Staten Island grave has been given a headstone thanks to a writer's fundraising campaign.

Michael Cala started a fund to mark the burial plot of Mamie Smith, the first black vocalist to record a blues song.

It was so successful he bought the $2,800 stone and donated another $3,000 to the Frederick Douglass Memorial Park cemetery for maintenance of other gravestones.

"The cemetery is rather cash strapped," said Cala.

"They don't have much money and what they wanted to do was...right headstones and foot stones that were moved by Hurricane Sandy."

While Cala was doing research for a book on Smith, he discovered the singer was buried in an unmarked grave in his home borough.

"It feels great," Cala said about raising the money. "It really does give her justice that she was denied in life."

In September, Cala held a ceremony to place the 36-inch granite headstone with 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 '20s and early '30s like Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith, Cala said.

Partly because of her lavish spending habits and the stock market crash, Smith died penniless and alone on Sept. 16, 1946, in Harlem. She was buried in the Staten Island cemetery for free because the pastor who performed her internment was the owner, Cala said.

While working on the headstone project, Cala discovered two other blues musicians were also buried in the cemetery: Rosa Henderson and Tommy Ladnier. 

He's also still trying to make sure the legacy of Smith's contribution to music gets the recognition it deserves.

"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."