"Diamond Teeth" Mary Smith McClain
1986 Florida Folk Heritage Award
Mary Smith McClain was an African American vocalist known for her blues and gospel music. As “Walking Mary” and later “Diamond Teeth” Mary, she sang on stage for over 70 years. Born in Huntington, WV, Smith was the half-sister of 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. Smith performed with some of the most famous African American entertainers, and had a ready supply of stories about her life. During the 1940s, Smith earned her nickname by having diamonds set into her front teeth, which created an entrancing stage effect.
In 1960, Smith performed in Manatee County and decided to stay. She met and married Clifford McClain, and started performing gospel music in church. McClain became a star gospel performer and ceased plying the club circuit. In the 1980s, folklorist Steven Zeitlin tracked her down and brought her renewed national exposure. McClain performed at the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife in Washington DC throughout the United States and Europe. She became popular with audiences across Florida and appeared at the annual Florida Folk Festival. She also performed off-Broadway in 1983 in a show that recreated traveling medicine shows.
As she wished, McClain’s ashes were sprinkled on the railroad tracks in West Virginia where she hopped her first train. Both the Florida State Museum and the Memphis Blues Museum include her gowns in their collections.