Mary Smith McClain, better known as Walking Mary and later
Diamond Teeth Mary, was born in Huntington, West Virginia,
on August 27, 1902. Mary is a half sister of Bessie Smith
(Smith's mother was one of Mary's four stepmothers) and
witnessed the tragic end of Bessie's life. Mary recalled " 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 nothin'. They let her die." At the age of 13,
Mary couldn't stand the beatings any more and left home to join
the circus disguised as a boy in her brother's clothes. She ended
up in Memphis, Tennessee, worked as a chorus girl and
eventually was picked up by the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, with
whom she became a featured singer. Mary spent the twenties
and thirties performing in a variety of medicine and minstrel
shows. She shared billings with Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sarah
Vaughan, Big Mama Thornton, Ray Charles, Charlie Parker and
Duke Ellington. She toured with the USO and has sung at the Apollo
theater in New York, at the Smithsonian, and at the White House
where her show-stopping charisma invariably would get the
standing-ovation audiences in the spirit.
Mary had lived with baseball great Satchel Paige, and was never
short of stories which astonished and amazed. One evening in
Memphis while visiting Bernice Turner, one of Hank Williams'
original drifting cowboys, Mary recalled a young Elvis Presley
"would bring Howlin' Wolf and me liquor from the liquor cabinet."
During the '40s, Mary had diamonds removed from a bracelet and
set into her upper and lower front teeth, creating a dazzling stage
effect. As BLUES REVUE QUARTERLY magazine founding editor Bob
Vorel wrote in 1992, "Although confined to a wheelchair, Mary is
still an electrifying performer. Her 'shining smile' and 'chair dancing'
brought the cheering crowd down to stage front at both the Handy
Awards and King Biscuit Blues Festival."
Diamond Teeth Mary has graced the stage of just about every
top blues venue in the country, earning the respect and admiration
of fans and musicians alike: Johnny Copeland said "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 remembered Mary's shows so well that, when sharing the
bill at the Las Fontanas, he said "I'm not gonna follow Mother Mary,
she'd take the house down!" Big Mama Thornton on Mary, "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 adds "I put her into show business.
Could she sing!" Buddy Guy once told an interviewer of peeking
through a club window as a young boy to get a look at "that lady
singer with diamonds set in her teeth." The diamonds, in fact,
earned McClain her nickname, and although the original stones
were sold to help pay her mother's medical bills, she later gained 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.
Diamond Teeth Mary died on April 4, 2000. At Mary's request,
her ashes were sprinkled on the railroad tracks in West Virginia
where she hopped her first train. Her gowns are in the Florida State
Museum and the Memphis Blues Museum. Miami's famous blues club,
Tobacco Road, named the performing room upstairs the Diamond Teeth
Mary Cabaret in her honor.