Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Original Grill

     She was a thirteen-year-old girl when she hopped a freight train to anywhere better than Huntington, West Virginia. Disguised in her brother’s clothes, she meant to join a circus.

     In her time, “Diamond Teeth” Mary Smith McClain was called “The Queen of the Blues”. She played everywhere from the White House and all over Europe to the Cotton Club and Apollo Theatre.

     She was commonly promoted on the same bill with performers like Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Count Basie and Ray Charles. At a gig in Memphis, a young Elvis Presley brought liquor for her to share with Howlin’ Wolf.

     Her half-sister Bessie Smith died in 1937 in following an automobile accident. In an interview in the early 1990's, Mary remembered seeing Bessie lying on a stretcher on the hospital floor. She lay there so long, Mary said, that her blood clotted on the floor. Although Bessie Smith was a huge star, a black woman in a hospital couldn't expect to get immediate attention.

     Diamond Teeth Mary had diamonds lodged in her teeth.

     Why the diamonds? Some said they were an on-the-road hiding place for jewels from a bracelet her mother had given her. In other stories, the stones were from a necklace she stole from her abusive stepmother.

     Mary said, "All the singers were doing stuff like that [then], with gold in the 1940s. I did diamonds, just to have something to make me stick out."

     She certainly did.
     In the 1960's, Mary moved her focus from the blues to gospel music, which she claimed she had never sung before 1964. Mary became a star at church, singing Precious Lord and Amazing Grace while falling into relative obscurity as interest waned in the blues.

     In the late 1970's, when blues music was enjoying a renaissance of sorts, Mary was "discovered" by folklorists who invited her to perform at the Florida Folk Festival. Her performance there brought down the house and earned her an invitation to sing at the White House in 1980.

     Why didn't Diamond Teeth Mary record when all her contemporaries seemed to be doing it? She somehow evaded the recording studio in favor of live performances for decades. Some said it was her temperament; Mary liked to work things on her own terms and burned her share of bridges along the way.

      University of South Florida anthropologist Maria Vesperi received an NEA grant in 1982 to archive some of Diamond Teeth Mary's performances and stories on video. Vesperi offers another view: "Mary was a country person. She had the opportunities, she was sought after, but she didn't want it—didn't want the city life that went with being a recording star at that time, to have to live in an urban area. She liked being on the road."

    Diamond Teeth Mary was probably the "Lady with the Million Dollar Smile" that a young Levon Helm saw at medicine shows in the '40s, performing as a singer/dancer with the F. S. Walcott "Rabbits Foot Minstrels". In The Band's "W. S. Walcott Medicine Show" she is referred to as "Miss Brer Foxhole" who's "got diamonds in her teeth". Levon describes her this way in his book, "Our favorite act was 'The Lady with the Million Dollar Smile,' F. S. Walcott's big featured singer, who'd come on in the third quarter of the show. She was an armful. She wore bright dresses and had all her teeth filled with diamonds! She sang on all those real get-down songs like 'Shake a Hand'."

      During her later years, some diamonds were replaced with foil. When Mary's mother was diagnosed with cancer, she had her jewels removed and pawned them to pay for her mother's care.

     Eventually, some friends helped her have new diamonds installed. 

     Diamond Teeth Mary was booked at the old Palms Club on U.S. 301 in Bradenton, Florida when she decided to retire there in 1960. She lived in Bradenton until moving to a nursing facility in St. Petersburg shortly before her death on April 4, 2000. At Mary's request, 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. Miami's famous blues club, Tobacco Road, named the performing room upstairs the Diamond Teeth Mary Cabaret in her honor.

Love from Delta.