Diamond Teeth Mary
Remembering the 'Queen of Blues'
by Maggie Council di Pietra
appeard in the St. Petersburg Times April 28, 2000.
Copyright © 2000 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.
We in the Tampa Bay area were lucky to share Diamond Teeth Mary's last years.
When she died at 97 earlier this month, the memories flooded in.
Folks remembered her birthday parties at Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa, which drew crowds of blues enthusiasts, players and performers. Or her appearances at the Silver King Tavern in St. Petersburg.
Mary once sat in at the Silver King with showman James Peterson during a late-night set. She sang so well that Peterson, with a new battery pack on his electric guitar rig, went down on Central Avenue, lay down and stuck his feet in the air while he played, still able to hear Mary from inside.
Where blues rang out in Tampa Bay, Diamond Teeth Mary wasn't far away.
Now, a party has been planned to celebrate Diamond Teeth Mary's life and spirit. She pretty much planned it herself.
Harmonica growler Rock Bottom, a close friend of Mary's for 20 years, explained that "Mary didn't want a funeral but she wanted a party. She outlined the whole deal, down to the red beans and rice and stuff."
Mary wanted it held at Skipper's, and she wanted people who knew her to get together and play. Not like a series of band showcases. More like how it used to be, playing on someone's porch.
"There's no structure," says Bottom. "That would be the music biz, and this is a memorial for Mary, and never the twain shall meet."
The music industry was never kind to Diamond Teeth Mary, but she managed to perform and make a living for 85 years without its help.
Mary Smith McClain started her performing career when Billie Holiday was in diapers and Robert Johnson was a toddler. But her Cinderella story of running away from home in 1915 at age 13 to escape an evil stepmother had no prince charming; it was Mary's own skills as an acrobat and singer that enabled her to survive.
By the time Muddy Waters and B.B. King were born, Mary Smith had years under her belt as a dancer and acrobat for the traveling minstrel/medicine shows across the Chitlin' Circuit and had started to sing. Medicine shows, which were popular roughly from the end of the Civil War to the 1950s, were traveling troupes featuring free entertainment interjected with pitches for ointments and tonics -- the same format adopted later by television, which played a huge role in the medicine shows' loss of popularity by creating stars that many people could see at once.
Mary's talent for drawing a crowd earned her a place with the best of the 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.
Mary was commonly promoted as "Queen of the Blues" on the same bill with luminaries such as Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Count Basie and Ray Charles.
Life on the road for black performers wasn't exactly limousines and room service in those days. Often the troupes had to travel miles out of their way just to find a place where they could eat or sleep, only to be relegated to the back yard.
One of Mary's contemporaries was Bessie Smith, who was a big sister figure for Mary until her death in 1937 in an automobile accident. In an interview in the early 1990s, 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.
Along the way, Mary became known as Diamond Teeth Mary for the diamonds she lodged in her teeth. Mary knew how to play an audience as well as tell a story, and the survivalist persona she had crafted was well-honed.
Why the diamonds? Some said they were an on-the-road hiding place for diamonds from a bracelet her mother had given her. In other stories, the diamonds were from a necklace she stole from her abusive stepmother. In another interview, 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."
During some of the leanest years, the diamonds were replaced for a while with tinfoil. In a recent interview, Mary's caretaker said that Mary's mother had come down with cancer, so Mary had her teeth pulled and pawned the diamonds to pay for her mother's care. Later in Mary's life, some Tampa Bay friends helped her have new diamonds installed.
Diamond Teeth Mary was booked at the old Palms Club on U.S. 301 in Bradenton when she decided to retire there in 1960.
It was the end of one era for Mary, but the beginning of another. She married Clifford McClain, her second husband 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 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 1970s, when the blues was enjoying a resurgence of interest, 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 a performance 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."
Vesperi tells how Mary's occasional outward prickliness was explained to her one time by Johnny Morgan, who owned the Stuffed Pepper on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, one of the few blues venues around the bay area in the early 1980s. "It's a survival strategy -- it's a defense. Johnny said he would have to look her in the eye and say, "Mary, you got paid.' At her age, she never knew when her next gig would come up, and she took every gig for all its worth."
Mary liked the attention she got from singing in church. "She'd been kicked out of several churches by the time I met her," says Vesperi. "She was a genuinely spiritual woman, and it meant a lot for her to have a church. I believe it was a tough time for her, that the other church ladies didn't like her singing in bars."
But Mary thought of it as a mission. Who needed to hear God's word more than those sorry souls hanging at bars? And Mary would work a little church into her blues -- for free. Others who knew Mary also cite her struggle with a personal, internal conflict between religion and blues.
The 18 hours of video funded by Vesperi's grant have never been edited. The reels were shot by nationally known cinematographer Nick Petrick, digitized last year for protection and archived at USF. Vesperi is seeking funding for post-production work.
The juke joints and dance halls Mary had played for black customers in earlier decades gave way to international audiences at festival stages, blues bars and even Carnegie Hall.
Mary never had any children, so there were no close kin around during her later years. It seems the blues community in Tampa Bay was her adopted family.
In 1996, local blues luminaries put on an all-star jam/concert to raise money for Mary, whose apartment had been damaged in a fire. Acoustic blues guitarist Roy Bookbinder helped Mary get a working telephone, and Rock Bottom and his friend St. Petey Twigg took Mary -- wheelchair and all -- on tours of Europe.
Traveling with Mary was an experience for Rock Bottom. "The first time she went [with St. Petey Twigg] to Sweden and Norway, she left all her Norwegian money, which was a considerable amount, in the trash in her hotel room. When presented with the money, and asked if perhaps she'd forgotten it, Mary angrily replied, "Don't give me that gumbo money. You're not gonna fool me. I want dollars!' Mary was paid in U.S. dollars for the remainder of her tour."
Locally-based blues diva Sandy Atkinson met Mary late in her life. About six years ago, Atkinson had just moved to the Tampa Bay area and was thinking maybe she was too old to pursue a lifelong dream of a career singing the blues. Then she saw Diamond Teeth Mary perform one night at the Ringside in St. Petersburg, and it gave her the chills. "Here I was, 40 years old off to see the wizard and there was this incredible woman onstage. She was just bouncing all over that wheelchair, and I had to go up and shake her hand."
Atkinson wrote a song and recorded it on her latest CD called She Rocked, a tribute to Mary and how she influenced others with her tremendous energy and distinctive style.