BIG MAYBELLE (By Dave Penny)

Born Mabel Louise Smith, 1 May 1924, Jackson, Tennessee
Died 23 January 1972, Cleveland, Ohio

"She became a super favourite at The Apollo; they loved her not only for her singing - she'd tear the place apart - but also for her comedic work. One joke she used to tell all the time : at that time there was a product on the radio, a detergent called Duz whose slogan was "Duz Does It!". Maybelle said, ‘I’m gonna go to work and make commercials for a new cleaning detergent. It’s called Fug, and if Duz don’t do it, then Fug it!’"       Fred Mendelsohn (producer and friend)

Reportedly born in Jackson, Tennessee, on 1st May 1924 (although it has been suggested that an earlier date of around 1920 is much more likely), Mabel Louise Smith was discovered singing at the Rock Temple church in 1935 by bandleader and talent agent Dave Clark. Clark gave up bandleading in 1938 to concentrate on artist management, and he found places for all his musicians with other bands; he placed Mabel with the all-female International Sweethearts of Rhythm and then, in the early 1940s, he recommended her to another of his clients, Christine Chatman. Mabel’s recording debut came in 1944 while she was still singing with pianist Chatman’s Orchestra, waxing a cover of that year’s Savannah Churchill/Benny Carter Capitol Records hit "Hurry, Hurry" for the Decca label. She was still plain Mabel Smith when she next recorded sessions for King in Cincinnati in late 1947. Discographies usually credit the accompaniment on the first King session as by the Tiny Bradshaw Orchestra, but this was two years before Bradshaw’s involvement with the Cincinnati-based label, and anyway the band was audibly the same on both sessions, particularly the distinctive guitar-work of Lonnie Johnson and the majestic trumpet of leader Hot Lips Page (The Hot Lips Page Orchestra, at the time, also included Hal Singer and Tom Archia on tenor saxophones). Under her new professional name, and aided by her new friend A&R man Fred Mendelsohn, Big Maybelle re-emerged five years later to sign for Columbia’s reactivated OKeh subsidiary where she had huge 1953 R&B chart hits with "Gabbin’ Blues" (# 3), "Way Back Home" (# 10) and "My Country Man" (# 5), and, although not a national hit, her most celebrated recording, the original version of "Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On", arranged by young Quincy Jones in 1955, two years before the smash hit version by Jerry Lee Lewis. Maybelle’s OKeh sessions were well-recorded affairs with fine arrangements by leader Leroy Kirkland, and all-star session musicians such as Sam 'The Man' Taylor, Dave McRae and Brownie McGhee. Her debut hit "Gabbin’ Blues" is also notable for featuring the sarcastic put-downs of the song’s co-writer Rose Marie McCoy.

Upon the expiry of her OKeh contract, Mendelsohn signed her to Savoy Records and was rewarded with the sumptuous "Candy", a # 11 hit in 1956. At Savoy, Mendelsohn teamed Maybelle with the band of seasoned R&B veteran session musicians led by Kelly Owens on piano, and her first sessions of 1956 were peerless, with revitalised swing era standards such as "Candy" and "Mean To Me" rubbing shoulders with more contemporary rhythm tunes such as "Tell Me Who" and the Lavern Baker beating "Ring Dang Dilly", which Maybelle performed in a medley with her latest hit on Alan Freed’s television show later in the year. No more hits came along, however, and to make matters worse, in October 1956 Mendelsohn left the company after a row with the owner Herman Lubinsky, and Maybelle’s new A&R man was the less sympathetic Ozzie Cadena who arranged her sessions backed by jazz musicians. Although she overcame the hurdle and delivered some fine recordings in 1957 and 1959 (1958 was a fallow year with no recordings being made by Maybelle although both her Savoy LPs had been released and she appeared in "Jazz On A Summer’s Day", the movie document of that year’s Newport Jazz Festival, performing the old blues standby "I Ain’t Mad At You"), she was sidelined by Savoy Records when the problems caused by her obvious heroin addiction had become unavoidable and costly.

Although she had not recorded for three years, she was still under contract to Savoy (or Lubinsky, at least, believed she was) when she signed to the reactivated Brunswick label in 1962, but she went ahead with the recordings and spent the rest of the 1960s developing a respectable soul legacy with her recordings for Scepter/ Wand, Port, Chess and Rojac/Paramount, enjoying a brief renaissance in 1966 and 1967 when two of her Rojac singles made healthy showings on the Billboard "Hot R&B" chart, especially her soulful cover of ? and The Mysterians’ "96 Tears", which reached # 23 on the R&B chart and, spookily, achieved # 96 on the Hot 100 - her only showing on the mainstream Pop chart.

Her last few years were very sad. She visited Britain in 1967 and made an appearance on BBC TV’s 'Top Gear', performing "Mean to Me", "Baby, Please Don’t Go" and, bizarrely, Donovan's "Mellow Yellow", but her voice was not the force of nature it had once been and she returned to Cleveland, Ohio, to live with her mother and began to suffer from advanced diabetes. The illness aggravated by her drug addiction curtailed her musical career and forced her early retirement in 1970. Big Maybelle died aged 47 on January 23, 1972 in Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital, after lapsing into a diabetic coma. Her 1956 hit single "Candy" received a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 1999. In 2011 Maybelle was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

Dave Penny, 2003 / 2007

More info :

Discography :

CD's :
- The best general overview is "I've Got A Feelin' : OKeh & Savoy Recordings 1952-56 (Rev-Ola Bandstand CRBAND-20), released in 2007 and annotated by Dave Penny. 20 OKeh and 8 Savoy recordings.
- "The Complete OKeh Sessions 1952-55" was issued on Epic/Okeh Legacy EK 53417 in 1994. 26 tracks. Liner notes by Peter Grendysa.
- The jazzy recordings from the 1940s can be found on "The Chronological Big Maybelle 1944-1953" (Classics 5089, 2004). 19 tracks. Liner notes by Dave Penny.

Acknowledgements : Peter Grendysa, Colin Escott, Peter Guralnick.

YouTube :
Gabbin' Blues :
My Country Man :
Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On :
Candy :
That's A Pretty Good Love :
Tell Me Who :
Ring Dang Dilly :
96 Tears :

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

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