This is how Maya Angelou opens her third memoir, “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas,” from 1976. When she was piecing together a life in 1940s San Francisco as a single teen mother, it was the need for vinyl — the blues of John Lee Hooker, the “bubbling silver sounds of Charlie Parker” — that drew her to the Melrose Record Shop on Fillmore. Her passion for records drove her to snatch two hours between jobs so she could rove its aisles. It was “where I could wallow,” Angelou writes, “rutting in music.”
Angelou would go on to join the store’s staff, basking in a world of wall-to-wall sounds — Schoenberg, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie — ordering stock and playing records on request. Maya the music wonk. Maya the D.J. Maya the record collector. This is a side of Black women’s cultural lives rarely considered and yet deeply woven into our modern pop universe.
This week marks the 100th anniversary of Mamie Smith recording “Crazy Blues,” African-American women’s breakthrough into the mainstream recording industry — a feat that is stunning and impactful, yet so often misunderstood or forgotten that most people would be hard pressed to name the artist whose smash altered the course of pop. And though they’re rarely acknowledged in histories of music, the Black women and girls who responded to Smith’s sound in mass helped upend the anti-Blackness of America’s nascent record business in the early 20th century.
In the summer of 1920, Smith, the Cincinnati-born New York vaudevillian, walked into a studio with Perry Bradford, a shrewd songwriter-musician and blues business hustler. They were on a mission to counteract the industry’s previous decade, when white blues artists like Marion Harris and the Ukrainian immigrant Sophie Tucker were breaking out with their own recorded renditions of Black music while African-American entertainers — legends like Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith — were confined to burning up the stages all along the “Chitlin Circuit,” the Theatre Owners Booking Association’s array of venues designated for Black performers.