Queen of the Blues, "Diamond Teeth Mary," Had Huntington Roots

Updated 5 years ago Special to HuntingtonNews.Net, by Aaron Michael Fox (from Facebook with permission)

  Being that February is Black History Month (founded by Huntingtonian Dr. Carter G. Woodson by the way), I thought I would post this as a reminder who Diamond Teeth Mary was and why we have a blues festival in August named after her.

Mary Smith McClain, also known as "Diamond Teeth Mary," and "Walking Mary," was one of the last of the old "blues shouters" from the medicine and minstrel show days. From her humble beginnings on the "chitlin' circuit," she went on to be billed as "the Queen of the Blues" at such venues as the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theatre, the White House, the Smithsonian, Carnegie Hall, and toured with the USO during WWII. She shared the stage with such notables as Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Big Mama Thornton, and her step-sister Bessie Smith.

Mary Smith was born in Huntington, WV on August 28, 1902. She hopped her first train out of town and away from an abusive home when she was just 13. She started her career on the medicine and minstrel show circuit performing in such troupes as the now notorious "Irwin C. Miller's Brown Skin Models," and the "Rabbit Foot Minstrels." She soon earned the nickname "Walking Mary" for her habit of walking away from unscrupulous promoters.

Mary survived for a while by selling stones from a diamond bracelet she had stolen from her abusive step-mother. At the height of her celebrity, she had the remaining diamonds embedded in her front teeth to create an dazzling stage effect--leading to her new nickname "Diamond Teeth Mary." When her step-mother later became ill in the late 40's, Mary had the diamonds removed and sold to help pay for the medical bills.

In 1989, Mary wanted to return to Huntington, so she booked a tour with Liz Pennock and Dr. Blues. This recording from the album "Walking Mary's Blues" was made during that tour on August 13, 1989 by Chandler Audio, Inc. in Huntington, WV. The piano and vocals were recored live, the dobro was recorded later by Dr. Blues. The commentary, which was an integral part of Mary's live show, was left in.

A friend of the band's that was at the recording studio that night said "We're making history!" and that is true. Mary made history for her entire 84-year career. Mary passed away in 2000 at the age of 97 years. This video, just like the album this song comes from, is dedicated to Mary and her work.

Diamond Teeth Mary Smith McClain performed at the Carnegie Hall and the White House, starred in a film about medicine shows called "Free Show Tonight" and an off-broadway show based on the film, toured Europe, and sang for President Reagan's inauguration...all after the age of 80-years-old.

As per her request, her ashes were spread on the railroad tracks at modern-day Heritage Station in Huntington, where she hopped first train.

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Special thanks to Liz Pennock & Dr. Blues, who retain rights to this song and recording (Blues Summit, BMI), for allowing me to make and post this video. To book Liz Pennock and Dr. Blues: LizPennock@yahoo.com or LizPennock.com

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