Huntington, West Virginia, U.S..... Singer
Genres..... Vocal - Bluegrass - Gospel - Spirituals - Blues - Folk - Vaudeville
Labels..... Big Boss Records
Associated Acts..... Bessie Smith
August 27, 1902 – April 4, 2000 - Was an American blues and gospel singer and vaudeville entertainer, whose career as a performer extended from the 1910s to the 1990s.
"Diamond Teeth" Mary McClain was born Mary Smith, in Huntington, West Virginia. She was a half-sister of the blues singer Bessie Smith (Bessie's mother, Laura, Owens, married Mary's father), and was better known as Walking Mary and later Diamond Teeth Mary. Smith's mother was one of Mary's four stepmothers. At the age of 13, young McClain couldn't stand the beatings any more 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 a variety of 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 at 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, "Diamond Teeth Mary", 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. She performed in nightclubs and theaters (including the Apollo Theatre) and toured Europe with the United Service Organizations (USO). She also sang at the Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall. At various times she performed with Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, and Duke Ellington, and she was often promoted as the "Queen of the Blues". She continued to play with touring shows, and in 1954 was reported as being the lead blues singer with the Rabbit's Foot Minstrels. 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
Among the stories she told about her long career were that she had lived for a time with the baseball star Satchel Paige and that the young Elvis Presley "would bring Howlin' Wolf and me liquor from the liquor cabinet." The blues singer Johnny Copeland said of her, "Mary is why I became a musician. I remember peeking under the tent when the medicine show came through town. She was the big star and I was the little boy who said I want to be on that stage too." John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton also credited her with giving them their start in the music business.
In 1960 she settled in Bradenton, Florida, and in 1964 married her second husband, Clifford McClain, who died in 1983. She began singing gospel music rather than secular blues, giving up her nightclub engagements but becoming a star at local church events. In the late 1970s, she was tracked down by Steven Zeitlin of the Smithsonian Institution, and started to be given national exposure. She performed at the Smithsonian's American Folklife Festival and sang for President Ronald Reagan at the White House in 1980. She was featured in a documentary, Free Show Tonight; toured in Europe in 1981; and appeared in an off-Broadway production, The Vi-Ton-Ka Medicine Show in 1983.
In 1986, she became one of the first recipients of the Florida Folk Heritage Award. She recorded her first album, If I Can't Sell It, I'm Gonna Sit on It, released by Big Boss Records in 1993. She toured Europe again in the 1990s, and continued to perform at blues festivals until shortly before her death in 2000, at the age of 97. Her ashes were scattered on the railroad tracks in West Virginia where she first hopped a train.
A play about her life premiered at the Florida Folk Festival in 2000. Her gowns were later put on display in the Florida State Museum and the Memphis Blues Museum.
A week after Diamond Teeth Mary died, I found myself at Sunset Beach, staring lazily out to a stormy sea. It was late afternoon on the rustic back patio of the Seabreeze. The jukebox was playing and it seemed as if the female bartender was complaining, but I couldn’t really hear the music or the churl. Children and seagulls were laughing, an offshore wind was brisk and the snore of the ocean soothed the driftwood in my mind. I just kept watching that fireball sun fall slowly into the shiny quicksilver Treasure Island sea.
The hypnotic dropping sun robbed me of rational thought save musings of Mary. I can see her, clear as fire-rimmed cumulus clouds, standing on Miami’s South Beach, resplendent in long scarlet gown, her shoulders wrapped in fox fur. It is red sky at six in the morning, Christmas Day 1983. We have just finished a night of the blues downtown at Tobacco Road and are driving home.
The sun is rising in spectacular streaks from an angry boiling cauldron and we are all compelled to stop and view the phenomenon. The bad neighborhood junkies are ducking into the shadows now, and the martial artists are positioned eerily about the beach like angels, posing in strict tai chi position before the wash of dawn.
True inspiration tended to rock hell out of Diamond Teeth Mary and we all came to expect it. It could be a man walking by with a large cobra wrapped around his neck or a big fat man with a little teeny dog. Everything had to do with God. Mary’s costume jewelry jangled as she raises one hand to the heavens. At the moment this fabulous sun takes flight, she crushes the hanky which hides her catfish cut-off thumb, squints her eyes shut and begins to pray: “Like a new born baby born, thank you Jesus. Like a new born baby born.”
Thank you Jesus. Now, 300 miles north Mary is a Holy Ghost on a cramped barroom stage, preaching through a microphone. Could be anywhere. Seems like we are at the Stuffed Pepper. 26th and Central in St. Pete. Mid-80s. The music is way down and the piano player, a blind guy we found in a barber shop named Willie James, is tinkling the keys like it was Sunday for the preacher. The King Snake Blues Band is playing the minimum, eyes darting back and forth, rotating cigarettes and sips of beer, waiting, wondering. “Be kind to your mother,” Mary extols, gripped with sincerity, fist to her chest and shaking. “Praise the Lord thank you Jesus.”
Drummer Kevin Hogan bangs a single rim shot at that. Diamond Teeth Mary pauses in mid-prayer and opens but one eye. The glare of the Cyclops diva jolts the drummer back from his snare. He tugs on his Harley shirt, cricks his neck and shakes it off. Mary continues. “We never knew what she was going to do next,” Hogan remembers, in awe, 15 years later.
Thick and noisy, the crowd all but shuts down. Only the cash register interrupts when Diamond Teeth begins to shriek and shake her religion. “She had a certain wisdom about these things. And she wasn’t afraid to let people in the bars know what she believed,” testifies harmonica wizard T.C. Carr. “The hedgerows and the highways, that’s where people need to know God,” she would say. “The people moaning and groaning’ in church already know it!”
“Turn the house lights on,” she orders. “Turn the house lights on,” she screams and screams and screams, over and over again, while nervous patrons feel the walls for switches in the dark. Cigarette lighters flame up begging Mary for butane absolution. “Turn the house lights on,” she bellows. The bar owner is waving his arms. Johnny Morgan is from Philadelphia, but he speaks British when stressed. He hurls Cockney curses at Little Juke the guitar player. Mary called Juke “B.B. King Number Two.” Number Two leans into Mary and whispers. “There’s no house lights in this place, Mary.”
All strength departs her body. She drops arm, sinks chin, shakes head and sighs. The room grows weird. That irritates her even more. Mary don’t like no dead house. She one-eyes Juke, turns away from him and lets loose without missing a beat: “I’m a big fat woman/ the meat is shakin’ on my bones/ and every time I shake it/ a skinny gal will lose her home. . . ”
The lighters leap like lizards all over the room. Mary prances like an Egyptian, yowling like a cat. The Philly returns to Johnny Morgan’s voice and the whole darn bar orders a beer. A flashlight aims square at the silvery Juicy Fruit gumfoil that wraps ‘round her teeth where the eight diamonds used to be and the sparkles bounce off bottles and mirrors and into the eyes of the crowd.
Thank you Jesus for the flashlights and lighters. I remember they were a field of fireflies one special night. I feel the cool air, on a blanket in the back of the crowd. Tall longleaf pines frame an amphitheater near the Suwannee River. The 1997 Florida Folk Festival. Thousands of people, someone hits a pole and the power in White Springs goes out. Mary is in a wheelchair now, 96 years old, frothing at the mouth while she sings the “Walkin’ Blues.”
Piano queen Liz Pennock and guitarist Doctor Blues are Mary’s whole band this night. Liz and Doc moved their whole life down from Ohio to perform with Mary. They are stunned when Mary keeps singing with the power out. They keep playing in the dark, wondering what the hell she’s going to do.
“Suddenly there were lighters and flashlights all over the place, hundreds of ‘em,” remembers Liz. “They shined ‘em all on stage so people could see her. The whole hillside got quiet to hear her. We played real lightly. They could hear Mary. And you could hear a pin drop.”
“Twenty minutes she sang with no power. I don’t know too many musicians of any age who would or could do that,” attests Rock Bottom, the bluesman who helped take care of Mary the last decade of her life.
“It was one of the most powerful moments in Florida Folk Festival history,” estimates Kenith Crawford, who directs the state’s premier folk event, which on this date is half as old as Mary herself.
And then the house lights come back on. Mary, the house lights are on! And the crowd roars through her finale. When The Saints Go Marching In. Doc wheels her backstage, away from a standing ovation her failing eyes can’t see. I notice her offstage persona, quiet and small now, innocent, helpless and withdrawn behind rouge and knick-knacks and rhinestone-decked fingernails.
A flurry of activity swirls about her. I can see faceless people lining up to talk in her ear. I see her smile and clutch twenty bucks in her palm. For a kiss, an autograph, a photo, a prayer. I see her explode into glossolailia agitation. Someone is dialing 911. They are digging in her purse for her flask of drinking ammonia and her bottle of “nervine” pills.
Someone had taken the microphone out of her hand. Rock Bottom considered his options: “I got the hell out of there when she began the talking in tongues.”
I see blues legend Johnny Clyde Copeland, his arm around her at the Big Apple, 40th and Central. He just stepped off a plane from Harlem, the year he won the Grammy, to perform at her 85th birthday party. He got paid a bag of pot and $25 “walkin’ around money” from Don Jose Motel owner Jack McNeely, who gave him a room with a heart shaped bed and a working 8-track tape deck built into the headboard.
“Mother Mary is why I became a musician,” Johnny explains. “I remember peeking under the tent when the medicine show came through town. She was the big star and I was the little boy who said ‘I want to be on that stage, too.’” Mary outlived Johnny, Jack, the heart-shaped bed and the Big Apple.
John Lee Hooker is still around. He remembers when Mary’s tent show came through his town, too. I asked him why he wouldn’t let her open his show at Las Fontanas. The Boogieman turned slowly and locked into my position with those deep black liquid soap eyes. “Son, do you think I’m stupid?” he drawled in that gravely asphalt voice. “I’m not gonna follow Mother Mary. She’d take the house down!”
I can still see the little yellow house Mary lived in with her second husband in clapboard East Bradenton. The first time I ever lay eyes on her, she is yelling at a door-to-door butcher: “Where’s the pa? Where’s the pa?” The man stomps away carrying something red in a soggy newspaper. I introduce myself and ask her, “Whose Pa were you talking about?”
Her face gurns: “What you talkin’ about pa? The pig. The pig’s paw. The rabbit. The rabbit’s paw. The goat the goat’s paw!” Mary felt it necessary to make sure the meat she bought wasn’t dog or cat. She wanted to see the foot.
In the corner is husband Clifford, a skin and bones man in tattered coat and tie, weak and crooked from “sugar,” smiling broadly but staying the hell out of her way. He holds Mary’s beloved little pooch Precious. First time we took Clifford to see Mary sing, he was stunned: “I never knew I had such a wife,” he kept saying. “I never ever knew I had such a wife.” He died three weeks later in his sleep.
Diamond Teeth Mary outlived all her husbands, including the last one – Billy – who was 40 years her junior. The first one – named Daniels – just took off, Mary claimed, after she bopped him on the head with a cooking pan for “carrying on.”
Duke Ellington. B.B. King. The 14-year-old Elvis. Nat King Cole. She knew them all and could talk about the famous and unknowns of her “ride” for hours. In the early 50s, the death of her mother and father forced her to remove the diamonds embedded in her teeth “to pay the bills,” She retired from 50 years of show business on the road – and found Jesus – in 1962. Right in Sarasota where Doc Bloodgood’s last medicine show finally ran out of gas. Tired of the traveling, the lonesome nights of having no roots, the “dope” musicians were doing in the dark, Mary was accepted among the show people south of the Skyway; she lived in East Bradenton until entering a St. Petersburg nursing home shortly before her death.
Oh, she appeared a few times at the Green Back Dollar Bill Club on 22nd St. in St. Pete, but it always got her kicked out of church when the gossip crossed the bridge. She would move to another house of worship until another preacher would find out. “I had no plans for a comeback,” she always said, “It just happened. God had a better plan for me.”
Diamond Teeth Mary had become “plain old Mary Smith,” is the way she described it, So, when my phone rang in May of 1982 and state Folk Arts Coordinator Peggy Bulger asked me to give an old Bradenton gospel singer a ride to White Springs for the folk festival, I figured it would be an experience closer to “Precious Lord” than “Stormy Monday.”
I can still see my nine-year-old daughter, eyes wide, holding a tape recorder close to Mary’s mouth as we tool up I-75 in my old red van. We are going to drop Mary off at a motel and then go strike a campsite near the Suwannee. I am a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times and, after seeing the chaotic scene at her house, figure this might be a lady worth documenting.
“Darling, they used to call me Diamond Teeth Mary,” she says to little Marlena. “I used to be biiiiiiig and fat.” She places one finger to her big red lips: “But don’t tell nobody, hon. I don’t want nobody to know.”
Then she begins to sing: “If I should take a notion, and jump right in the o-shun, ain’t nobody’s business if I do. If I should go crazy, take a shot-gun and shoot my baby, ain’t no-oh-obody’s business if I do. . .”
She tells her two favorite stories: her half-sister, blueswoman Bessie Smith, lying in a hospital waiting room, arm “hanging by a thread and bleeding’ in a pan,” dying while the white doctors stood by.
And the one about Big Mama Thornton, who wrote Elvis’ “Hound Dog,’ and Janis’ “Ball and Chain.” She tells how she picked Big Mama off a garbage truck and made her a performer. It seems part fantasy. But, later events prove it out.
I see Mary walking the streets of New York City, right in the front door of Gerde’s Folk City in the Village. Photos of Bob Dylan stare down at us as we walk past the stage in the middle of Big Mama’s set. Big Mama is in a wheelchair, all skinny and mean, hair like a wig. But her harmonica stops cold, and the room is ice when her eyes meet Mary’s. Big Mama begins to cry. Mary hands her the catfish hanky.
Big Mama’s words are slurred but genuine: “Ladeez and gentlemens, this is Walkin’ Mary Smith. She’s my mother. She took me off the back of a garbage truck in Montgomery Alabama. I was dressed like a boy and she put ribbons in my hair!”
Mary thanks Jesus and smiles so wide, the edges of the gum-foil stick out. The great folksinger Odetta is in the audience. All three women sing the impromptu blues, fighting for verses and attention. Mary wrestles the ending note from the others and moans it forth with hollers that have us all holding our breath and standing. Big Mama is coughing. Odetta walks away.
We walk outside and Mary shakes her head in disgust. “Stubborn. Headstrong,” she rages. “That Willie Mae hasn’t changed a bit!” Mary wishes she would have left the girl on the garbage truck. Willie Mae – Big Mama Thornton – would be dead in less than a year.
Mary had another 15 years. She lived for the cheers and adrenalin of her musical revival in the hedgerows. I see a whole collage of separate Mary images, singing the same song two or three times in a row while frantic stage managers study their wrists in the wings. I see her swinging an SM58, actually bopping people about the face and head while an emcee tries to take the microphone out of her hand. I hear the crowd screaming, “Leave her alone.”
At a St. Petersburg Times-sponsored event, a Dixieland band of old codgers were directed to actually take the stage, set up and begin to play while Diamond Teeth Mary was still singing her last number. When some geezer stepped in front of her strumming a four-string banjo, I was afraid Diamond Teeth Mary was going to physically kick him off the stage.
The promotion director was proud of his accomplishment: “That’s the way to keep Diamond Teeth Mary on time,” he preened, straightening his tie. I called the asshole an asshole and he snitched me out to the upper management. “That’s strike one and strike two, Pete,” the editor told me.
When I took a called third strike a few months later, Mary swore she would never read that newspaper again. She loyally cussed out the Gainesville Police Department on a live TV show for writing me a parking ticket. The last time I saw her, she was blind and weak, but she squeezed my hand and said the same thing she always said when we met. “Tell me, how is your daughter?”
In Mary’s world, little Marlena was still a freckle-faced nine-year-old holding that tape recorder while we drove to White Springs. I told her she was grown, now, and doing fine. “Praise God,” she always said.
The sun was floating on the ocean now, a deep orange sherbet scoop melting on the sea. Dozens of people were standing in the sand, up and down the beach, facing west. Day had almost turned into night and I contemplated the sunset of Diamond Teeth Mary’s life.
She played Carnegie Hall, the White House, the W.C. Handy Awards, the Long Beach and Chicago Blues Festivals, the Apollo Theatre, the Cotton Club and toured Europe three times. She appeared on the Today show, in an off-Broadway Musical and danced in the streets with the kids of FAME. She played every hall, bar and Juke joint in this part of Florida, hundreds of shows. She was backed by nearly every blues musician in Tampa Bay, including Loony Larry, Mikey Leach, Diddy Wah Diddy, Boneshaker, Freightrain Parker, Raiford Starke, Smilin’ Mike, Southside Charly and Gentleman John Street. She tried to make church every Sunday to beg forgiveness for the blessed sin that was her life in the blues.
Levon Helm put her name in a Band song and Marlboro used her in a national ad. She starred in a PBS special. They named the performing room upstairs at Tobacco Road the Diamond Teeth Mary Cabaret. They collected her gowns for the Florida State Museum. They gave her Florida’s highest folk music award and she was up for the national honor when she passed away at 6:45 a.m. Tuesday April 4, 2000.
She was the fat lady who sang at the end. The last surviving member of the Irwin C. Miller Brownskin Models, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, the Bronze Mannequins and Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue, the last of the legendary blues shouters – the last tree in the blues forest was either 97, 98, 99 or 100 years old – depending upon which birthday Mary used last. Her adopted son Yogi – a victim of congenital bone disease she taught to be a carnival “rubber man” – hadn’t been seen in more than ten years. Under next of kin, she wanted “the blues musicians."
A guy named Digger, a Vietnam POW and flute player who handled Mary’s affairs at the end, said there was no pain. She was real tired and wouldn’t eat, but holding on for days.
“I told her, Mary, you can rest now,” Diggers says of the final moments. “You don’t have to do any more shows. She seemed to relax knowing that. She said ‘I’m going home now. My mother’s waiting.’ And she was gone. Just like that.”
Out in Dripping Springs, Texas, hot shot guitarist Erik Hokkanen, who had cut his teeth backing Mary, heard the news and went to the woods to do something ritual with flame and smoke: “Funny thing is, I wasn’t sad. I felt she was there with me. I feel as if she will always be here with me.”
Seminole Chief Jim Billie offered to pay for Mary’s burial, but her bank account had enough to cover it all. “I can tell you right now, Mary was damned proud of that,” said Rock Bottom. Mary always claimed to be half Cherokee and showed a very distinctive photo of her mother to anyone who doubted her word. Chief Billie funded the completion of a short documentary on her life which had been in the works for more than 15 years; it premiered at the 2000 Florida Folk Festival.
At Mary’s request, Digger will spread her ashes on the railroad tracks outside her home town of Huntington, W. Va. That’s where she jumped a freight at 13 to begin the incredible adventure that was her life. Each time she reached the crossroads, the Devil let her pass. “One journey’s finished. Another journey begins. That’s the way Mary looked at it,” sighed Digger. “Everyone loved her. She loved everybody. She was bigger than life.”
Much bigger than life. She was a national treasure. Her likes may never pass this way again.
I was all warm inside when the last teeny sliver of sun slipped beneath the horizon. I heard applause in every direction – the length of Sunset Beach. I heard hoots and hollers mixed in with the hand-claps. I hear Diamond Teeth Mary screech: “I love that kind of carryin’ on!”