Born: May 1, 1924 | Died: January 23, 1972 Primary Instrument: Vocal
Big Maybelle was a top selling performer from the Golden Age of R&B, who could interpret rousing carousing dance music, and bring it all back down with a tender haunting ballad.
Born Maybelle Louis Smith in Jackson, Tennessee, she grew up singing in the local Sanctified Church choir in Jackson. Full-figured and commanding, Big Maybelle sang the blues with controlled abandon and a flair for style. In 1932, she won first prize at the Cotton Carnival singing cabaret in Memphis, then toured with an all girl band called the Sweethearts of Rhythm. They played dances from Mississippi to Indiana.
From 1936 to 1940, she toured with the Christine Chatman Orchestra and in 1944 she recorded with Christine on the Decca Label. During the 1950s, Maybelle sang with The Quincy Jones Orchestra, the Kelly Owens Orchestra, and the Danny Mendelsohn Orchestra.
Her blues shouting style (a female counterpart to Big Joe Turner) brought an R&B hit in ‘53 with Gabbin' Blues. 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. Leaving OKeh for Savoy, her version of 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.
Although she had several minor chart-makers, Maybelle was never able to achieve the stardom that her talent deserved.
At her best, she was so strong that Billie Holiday once refused to follow her opening act. Maybelle struggled with a heroin habit that later debilitated her. From the late 1960s, she performed sporadically. Big Maybelle died in 1972 of a diabetic coma.