Mabel Louise Smith was born in Jackson, Tennessee in 1924. She started singing and playing piano professionally as a teenager, working with Dave Clark’s Memphis Band, the all female International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and Tiny Bradshaw’s Orchestra. Her solo career began in 1947, when she recorded a few sides for King Records with Oran “Hot Lips” Page, but it didn’t really take off until she signed with Okeh in 1952. Producer Fred Mendehlson convinced Mabel to take the stage name of Big Maybelle.
Maybelle’s debut single featured the B side “Gabbin’ Blues,” co-written and co-performed by Rose Marie McCoy. Radio play for that song pushed it up to #3 on Billboard’s R&B chart.
1954’s “My Country Man” extolled the virtues of the simple pleasures offered by country life with the right man—especially when
He’s strong as a Hick’ry tree
And he’s the right kind of man for me.
Because I need a man
With a whole lot of energy.
1955 saw the release of the “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” This was the first recording of the song, two years before Jerry Lee Lewis’s more frenetic version and eighteen years before Lee Hazlewood’s typically laconic version. Maybelle and her band swing strong and steady, with lyrics that differ a bit from we’d later hear. Produced by Quincy Jones, who is no stranger to the work featured on this blog.
The keener-eyed of you might be wondering what this song is doing in the 78s section, since the disc pictured in the video is clearly a 45. Well, the two formats co-existed until roughly 1960. Record companies didn’t want to alienate customers who had yet to acquire a turntable that could play 45‘s, so the old format kept going a good 12 years after 45s were introduced. In some countries—Finland and India, for example—78s were produced well beyond their end here in the States.
The B side is “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” a tune that has also been covered more than a few times. An excellent choice for a post-breakup mixtape/playlist.
Maybelle moved on to Savoy Records in 1956, when she had one of her biggest hits with “Candy.” Big thanks to The Cosby Show for introducing us 80’s kids to so much good music that we’d likely never otherwise hear.Bonus thanks is given for usually playing the entire song, a risky move in a 22 minute format.
There isn’t much live footage of Big Maybelle out there, which makes Jazz On a Summer’s Day—an account of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival—all the more precious. Here’s “I Ain’t Mad at You.”
By 1963, health problems and drug addiction were beginning to slow Maybelle down. She had a great album of covers in 1967 though, on the Rojac label. Here’s her take on ? and the Mysterion’s “96 Tears.”
A diabetic coma took Maybelle from us in 1973. She was a mere 48 years old. She left us too soon—certainly before her place in music’s progression from Jump Blues to Rhythm and Blues to Rock and Roll would be fully acknowledged. But I guess…