Big Maybelle Biography

Mabel Louise Smith, 1 May 1924, Jackson, Tennessee, USA, d. 23 January 1972, Cleveland, Ohio, USA. Maybelle was discovered singing in church by Memphis band leader Dave Clark in 1935. When Clark disbanded his orchestra to concentrate on record promotion, Smith moved to Christine Chatman’s orchestra with whom she first recorded for Decca Records in 1944. Three years later, Smith made solo records for King and in 1952 she recorded as Big Maybelle when producer Fred Mendelsohn signed her to OKeh Records, a subsidiary of CBS Records. Her blues shouting style (a female counterpart to ‘Big’ Joe Turner) brought an R&B hit the next year with ‘Gabbin’ Blues’ (a cleaned-up version of the ‘dirty dozens’ on which she was partnered by songwriter Rose Marie McCoy). ‘Way Back Home’ and ‘My Country Man’ were also bestsellers. In 1955, she made the first recording of ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, which later became a major hit for Jerry Lee Lewis. Big Maybelle was also a star attraction on the chitlin’ circuit of black clubs, with an act that included risqué comedy as well as emotive ballads and brisk boogies. Leaving OKeh for Savoy, her ‘Candy’ (1956) brought more success and in 1959, she appeared in Jazz On A Summer’s Day, the film of the Newport Jazz Festival. Despite her acknowledged influence on the soul styles of the 60s, later records for Brunswick Records, Scepter and Chess Records made little impact until she signed to the Rojac label in 1966. There she was persuaded to record some recent pop hits by the Beatles and Donovan and had some minor chart success of her own with versions of ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ and ‘96 Tears’. The latter was composed by Rudy Martinez, who also recorded it with his band ? And The Mysterians. Big Maybelle’s career was marred by frequent drug problems, which contributed to her early death from a diabetic coma.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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