Mary McClain

Mary McClain, 1902-2000

Mary Smith McClain was an African-American vocalist known for her blues and gospel music. She sang on stage for over 70 years, going by the stage names “Walking Mary” and later “Diamond Teeth” Mary. Born in Huntington, West Virginia, Smith was the half-sister of blues legend Bessie Smith. She left home at 13 and, disguised as a boy, performed in the circus as a singer and acrobat. Through the 1920s and 1930s she continued to perform in medicine and minstrel shows, then later performed in nightclubs, the USO, Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club. During the 1940s, Smith earned her nickname by having diamonds set into her front teeth. In the 1980s, folklorist Steven Zeitlin tracked her down and brought her renewed national exposure. McClain performed at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, DC, throughout the United States and Europe. She became popular with audiences across Florida and appeared regularly at the Florida Folk Festival. McClain received the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1986.

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