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Wed, 08.27.1902

Mary ‘Diamond Teeth’ McClain, Blues Singer born

Mary McClain

Mary Smith McClain was born on this date in 1902. She was a Black blues singer and entertainer.

She was born in Huntington, West Virginia, and was better known as Walking Mary and later Diamond Teeth Mary. Mary McClain was the half-sister of Bessie Smith (Smith's mother was one of Mary's four stepmothers). At 13, young McClain couldn't stand the beatings and left home to join the circus disguised as a boy in her brother's clothes. She went to Memphis, TN, worked as a chorus girl and joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, where she became a featured singer.

McClain spent the 1920s and 1930s performing in various medicine and minstrel shows. She shared billings with her sister Bessie, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Big Mama Thornton, Ray Charles, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington. She toured with the USO and sang at the Apollo Theater, the Smithsonian, and the White House, where her show-stopping charisma received standing ovations.  McClain also lived with baseball great Satchel Paige and was never short of stories about her life and times. One evening in Memphis, she recalled that a young Elvis Presley "would bring Howlin' Wolf and me liquor from the liquor cabinet."

During the 1940s, McClain had diamonds removed from a bracelet and set into her upper and lower front teeth, creating a dazzling stage effect. The diamonds earned McClain her nickname.  Although the original stones were sold to help pay her mother's medical bills.  She later got a new set of teeth, new diamonds, and her first album release, If I Can't Sell It, I'm Gonna Sit on It," on the Big Boss label.

Tragically, McClain witnessed the heartbreaking death of Bessie Smith. She once remembered, “Bessie was lying in a hospital waiting room, her arm hangin' by a thread and bleedin' in a pan while the white doctors stood by and watched doing nothin'. They let her die."

"Diamond Teeth" Mary McClain died on April 4, 2000. As she wanted, her ashes were sprinkled on the railroad tracks in West Virginia, where she hopped her first train. Her gowns are in the Florida State Museum and the Memphis Blues Museum. In Miami, Tobacco Road named the performing room upstairs the Diamond Teeth Mary Cabaret in her honor.

To Become a Musician or Singer




Nothing But the Blues The Music and the Musicians
Edited by Lawrence Cohn
Copyright 1993 Abbeville Publishing Group, New York
ISBN 1-55859-271-7

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