Mamie Smith was born in 1883 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and although not much is known about her early life, it is known that she worked as dancer for Tutt-Whitney's Smart Set Company in her teens. She also worked as a singer in Harlem revues before the 1920's. Her place in the history of the blues is founded mainly on her having been the first person to release a successful vocal blues recording, and in doing so, to have been instrumental in opening up opportunities for other artists to record. Composer Perry Bradford convinced Okeh Records that there was an untapped market for blues music in the African-American community. With hopes of a slim profit, they agreed to issue one single and Mamie Smith released "That Thing Called Love" and "You Can't Keep A Good Man Down".

Sales estimates of the record were between 50,000 and 100,000 copies sold and this prompted Okeh records to make a second recording, releasing "Crazy Blues" and "It's Right Here For You" in August 1920. In the first month the record reportedly sold 75,000 copies and more than 1 million in the first year, and thus the "race records" industry was born. She was accompanied by a band called the Jazz Hounds led by cornetist Johnny Dunn and trombone player Dope Andrews. Although her style was more vaudeville and cabaret than straight blues, she nevertheless was an important pioneering artist, paving the way for great female blues artists such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.  Mamie even set the standard of appearance for many female blues artists by dressing lavishly and wearing ornate jewellery onstage. Her fame however was relatively short lived and although she appeared in three films, 'Murder On Lenox Avenue', 'Sunday Sinners', and 'Paradise in Harlem', she did not release any further recordings of note after 1923. She died impoverished and in obscurity in 1946.