Diamond Teeth Mary Loomis, Ormond. "Diamond Teeth" Mary McClain performing concert with band at the Stuffed Pepper in St. Petersburg. 1982. Black & white photonegative, 35 mm. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

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 with groups like the Rabbit's Foot Company. She later performed in the USO and at nightclubs like the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club. Smith performed with some of the most famous musicians of her era, and she 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 Museum of Florida History and the Memphis Blues Museum include her gowns in their collections.

Point of Interest

In 1960, Mary Smith McClain performed at the Palm Nightclub in Manatee County. Soon after she made Bradenton her permanent home, and she made the switch from blues to gospel.

After being rediscovered by folklorists in the 1980s,"Diamond Teeth" Mary performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and became a popular performer at the Florida Folk Festival