How incredible that a character like Diamond Teeth Mary McClain (Mary Smith, 1902-2000) lived into the 20th century, if only for a few months. A half-sister of Bessie Smith, Mary was born in West Virginia and ran away from home to join a circus at age 13. She performed with Irvin C. Miller’s Brown Skin Models, the Davis S. Bell Medicine Show, F.S. Woolcott’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels and other touring revues and black vaudeville through 1920s and ’30s, often performing alongside her more famous sister. She also played famous venues like the Apollo Theatre and the Cotton Club. Until the 1940s, she was known as Walking Mary, but when she had several diamonds set into her front teeth she got a more lasting nickname (though financial need later necessitated the removal of those precious stones). Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker both said that Diamond Teeth Mary launched them in show business.
In the 1960s, she switched from secular music to gospel, singing in churches rather than nightclubs. In the 1970s, she began to acquire national fame from attention from the Smithsonian, and once again began including the blues in her repertoire. In 1993 she recorded her first album If I Can’t Sell It, I’m Gonna Sit On It. She continued performing internationally until shortly before she died at age 97.
To find out more about vaudeville and performers like Diamond Teeth Mary, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous
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