Blues Fest To Honor Huntington Native

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Blues acts, harmonica demonstrations and music competitions are on tap for the third annual Diamond Teeth Mary Blues and Arts Festival, taking place Friday, Aug. 24 and Saturday, Aug. 25 in Huntington, W.Va.

Located at Huntington's Heritage Station, the festival celebrates and honors legendary blues singer and West Virginia native "Diamond Teeth" Mary Smith McClain.

Diamond Teeth Mary may not be a household name, though she had impressive credentials.

A half-sister to famed blues singer Bessie Smith, Mary Smith McClain spent the 1920s and 1930s performing in traveling medicine and minstrel shows before moving on to USO tours and appearances at The Apollo Theater and Cotton Club.

Over the years, she rubbed shoulders with legends, sharing the stage with Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Charlie Parker, Nat King Cole, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. For a while, she lived with baseball great Satchel Paige.

Sometime during the 1940s, McClain had diamonds removed from a bracelet and set into her upper and lower front teeth, earning her the nickname "Diamond Teeth."

After 20 years of inactivity, McLain made a comeback in the 1980s with a European tour and a performance at The White House for Ronald Reagan.

Blues singer-songwriter and festival organizer Chris Sutton says the Diamond Teeth Mary Festival is meant to pay homage to McLain through live musical performance.

"She was a Huntington native who always thought of Huntington as her home, despite living in Florida in her later years," he said. "So much so that she requested her ashes be scattered in Huntington on the railroad tracks were she had hopped a train out of town as a child. Her wishes were followed."

This weekend, regional and national blues acts will pay tribute to Diamond Teeth Mary, including the St. Petersburg, Fla., duo Liz Pennock and Dr. Blues, who backed the singer on some of her tours.

In addition to Pennock, a number of powerhouse female vocalists will be featured. "We’ve got Jill West, Geneva Red, Mother Blues and Liz [Pennock]. It just happened to work out that way, but I’m glad that it did," said Sutton.

For a second year, the festival will host W.C. Handy Award-winner Phil Wiggins, considered by many to be one of the greatest living traditional blues harmonica players.

Wiggins, who was one-half of the acoustic blues duo Cephas and Wiggins, has made numerous appearances on NPR’s Mountain Stage. He performed at last year’s Diamond Teeth Mary festival with West Virginia bluesman Nat Reese, who recently passed away.

Sutton said they’re honored to have Wiggins back, who will be teaching a workshop, judging the harmonica championship and sitting in with a couple of bands.

"This year, anyone wanting to learn to play the harmonica can attend free workshops from Phil Wiggins and Hohner Harmonica representative Geneva Red," he added. "Free harps will be given out to the first 50 to attend. A competition follows and is open to anyone that can blow a harp and is willing to play two songs for the judges and fans."

The music begins Friday with Main Stage performances by Big Rock And The Candy Ass Mountain Boys (6 p.m.), C&S Railroad (7 p.m.), Jill West And Blues Attack (8 p.m.) and Ray Fuller And The Blues Rockers (9 p.m.).

On Saturday, the festival features 12 full hours of live music, demonstrations and competitions starting at 10 a.m. and lasting through 10 p.m.

"It’s going to be a damn good variety of non-stop blues," said Sutton.

Saturday Schedule

Gazebo Stage

11 a.m. Phil Wiggins harmonica workshop

12 p.m. Geneva Red Hohner harmonica workshop

1:45 p.m. West Virginia State Harmonica Championship

3:45 p.m. The Lacividicous Deacons featuring the 2011 West Virginia State Harmonica Champion, Scott Gray

5 p.m. Izzy and Chris

Main Stage

6:15 p.m. Mother Blues (Charleston, W.Va.)

7:45 p.m. Geneva Red’s Original Delta Fireballs

9 p.m. Liz Pennock and Dr. Blues featuring Huntington drummer Alex Kendall and a host of friends in a closing jam honoring Diamond Teeth Mary

For more information, visit www.ghprd.org.