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Thu, 05.01.1924

Big Maybelle, a tough act to follow

Big Maybelle

On this date in 1924, Big Maybelle was born.   She was an African American singer with a powerful voice and a stage presence to match.

Born Maybelle Louis Smith in Jackson, TN, to Frank Smith and Alice Easley, 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-female band called the Sweethearts of Rhythm. They played at 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.  She made the stage of the Apollo Theater in NYC and the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Maybelle hit the charts in 1953 when "Gabbin' Blues," which hit number three that year. Although she had several more 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 1971 of a diabetic coma.

Reference:
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York
ISBN 0-926019-61-9

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