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Mary McClain
Principal information

Diamond Teeth Mary McClain

Mary Smith McClain was born on August 27, 1902. She was an African-American blues singer and entertainer.

Better known as "Walking Mary" and later "Diamond Teeth Mary," she was born in Huntington, West Virginia. Mary McClain and was the half sister of Bessie Smith (Smith's mother was one of Mary's four stepmothers). At the age of 13, young McClain couldn't stand the beatings any longer and left home to join the circus disguised as a boy in her brother's clothes. It was Mary's own skills as an acrobat and singer that enabled her to survive.

McClain spent the 1920’s and 1930’s performing in a variety of medicine and minstrel shows. She traveled in troupes like Irwin C. Miller's Brown Skin Models, the Davis S. Bell Medicine Show and for 11 years as part of the infamous Rabbit Foot Minstrels.

She toured with the USO and sang at the Apollo Theater, the Cotton Club, and other prominent night clubs, where her show-stopping charisma received standing-ovations. Night spots from Boston to Miami billed her as "Queen of the Blues," and she shared billings with her sister Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Big Mama Thornton, Ray Charles, Charlie Parker, Nat King Cole, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. 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, and 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."

Mary Smith came to Manatee County, Florida, in 1960 when she was booked at the Palms Club, and decided to settle down. She met and married Clifford McClain, her second husband, in 1964 and followed him to church. Mary moved her genre of focus from the blues to gospel music, which she claimed she had never sung before that time. Mary became a star at church, singing spell-binding renditions of Precious Lord and Amazing Grace, while falling into relative obscurity on the club circuit as interest waned in the blues. Clifford McClain died in 1983. Mary contented herself by continuing to sing hymns and gospel music in area churches until her rediscovery in the 1980s.

Folklorist Steven Zeitlin at the Smithsonian Institution tracked her down and gave her national exposure that led to her "comeback" in the 1980s. She went on to perform at the Smithsonian's American Folklife Festival and toured Europe in 1981, made it to off-Broadway in 1983 with a show that was a re-creation of the travelling medicine shows, "The Vi-Ton-Ka Medicine Show," and sang for President Reagan.

"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.

Adapted from the African American Registery, which cites the book, Nothing But the Blues The Music and the Musicians (1993, ed. Lawrence Cohn, Abbeville Publishing Group, New York); and the obituary written by Maggie Council di Pietra (Diamond Teeth Mary: Remembering the 'Queen of Blues.') of the St. Petersburg Times. The original article appeared in the St. Petersburg Times April 28, 2000. Copyright © 2000 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

Full Name: Mary smith "Walking Mary or Diamond Teeth" McClain

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Folkstreams Filmography

McClain, Mary appears in
  Free Show Tonight
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