Teenage Clara Smith began performing in tent shows and vaudeville stages in 1910. By the 20s, she was headlining for the Theater Owners Bookers Association circuit, a promoter working exclusively with African-American talent. After appearing all across the United States, Clara settled in New York City, topping the bill at speakeasies and cabarets. She was signed to Columbia Records where she made recordings accompanied by Fletcher Henderson and Louis Armstrong. She also recorded duets with contemporary Bessie Smith, though the two ladies were not related. Although she had a lighter, sweeter vocal style, Clara earned herself the nickname “Queen of the Moaners.” Clara cut 122 songs for Columbia. Her records sold very well, only being topped in sales by Bessie Smith.
During her career, she met 13-year-old budding singer named Josephine Baker. Clara became Josephine’s mentor, hiring the young girl as her dresser. A romantic relationship soon developed between Clara and Josephine.
In 1935, while playing a theatre in Detroit, Clara succumbed to heart disease. She was just shy of 41.