Written by Aaron-Michael Fox.
West Virginia-native “Diamond Teeth” Mary Smith McClain was a blues and gospel singer as well as a vaudeville entertainer. Her career spanned 85 years, from 1915-2000.
Born Mary Smith in Huntington, WV in 1902, Mary was the half-sister of famed blues singer Bessie Smith. To escape an abusive household, Mary hopped a train at modern-day Heritage Station when she was just 13 years old. To be permitted to travel by herself, she had to disguise herself as a boy.
She found work as a chorus girl in various circuses and minstrel shows throughout the south and midwest with troupes such as Irvin C. Miller’s Brown Skin Models, the Davis S. Bell Medicine Show, and F.S. Wolcott’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels. She was quickly nicknamed “Walking Mary” for her habit of walking out on unscrupulous promoters.
Mary performed at virtually every top-level blues venue in the country including the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theatre, and Carnegie Hall. She toured Europe with the USO; and at various times, shared the stage with Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, and Duke Ellington.
Having lived for a time with baseball star Satchel Paige, Mary’s personal life was just as interesting. In stories, she would talk of drinking liquor with Howlin’ Wolf while a young boy from the neighborhood played bartender. That boy’s name was Elvis Presley. Over her life, she married three times, the third time to a man 30 years her junior.
John Lee Hooker once famously refused to be on the same bill with Mary saying, “I’m not gonna follow Mother Mary! She’ll bring the house down!”
Buddy Guy once recalled to an interviewer how he used to peak under the tent of the medicine shows to see “that lady with diamonds in her teeth.”
Mary is credited with discovering the future blues legend Big Mama Thornton. “She’s my mother,” said Thornton. “She pulled me off the back of a garbage truck and put ribbons in my hair.”
Mary missed out on the rebirth of the blues when she retired to Florida in 1960. She would perform at blues clubs only occasionally and without her husband’s knowledge. To her friends in Florida, Mary was just a church singer.
However, when she got a call to be part of a Smithsonian documentary on medicine shows called “Free Show Tonite” in the late 1970s, Mary came out of retirement. From there, she was featured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, performed in an off-Broadway show based on the documentary, and was even invited to sing for President Ronald Reagan at the White House.
In 1993, at the age of 91, Mary recorded her first album under her own name: “If I Can’t Sell It, I’m Gonna Sit On It.” It was followed by “Walking Mary’s Blues” later that same year. She toured Europe again in the 90s and continued to perform at blues festivals until her death in 2000.
As per her wishes, her ashes were spread at Heritage Station where she hopped her first train; a plaque now stands on the spot. To honor her, on what would have been her 101st birthday in 2013, the City of Huntington renamed 11th Street by the old train depot “Diamond Teeth Mary Way.”
Listen to Mary’s “Walkin’ Blues” HERE.