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Willie MaeFord Smith
On this date in 1904, Willie Mae Ford Smith was born. She was a Black gospel singer.
Born in Rolling Fork, MS, “Mother” Willie Mae Ford Smith was the seventh of fourteen children whose parents were hard-working and active church members. Her father was a railway brakeman, and the family moved to Memphis because of his job. Later, in Saint Louis, her mother opened a restaurant, where Smith worked.
The family was strict Baptists, and her father was also a deacon. Smith's maternal grandmother was a slave and later looked after the Ford children. The family was poor and often the children slept four in a bed, using their coats to keep warm.
Her early education was piecemeal. In her eighth-grade year of school, she quit helping in her mother's restaurant. Her musical training was by ear, beginning early and continuing for many years. She remembered her grandmother “singing, clapping, and doing the 'Rock Daniel'” (a holy dance). Her parents sang duets in churches around their area, and, in 1922, her father formed a family quartet, The Ford Sisters, made up of Mary, Emma, Geneva, and Willie Mae as lead singer. Smith said, “They were more like the spiritual version of the Mills Brothers!”
Smith became director of the Soloists Bureau of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in 1936. She was one of the first to sing in the blues-influenced gospel-style developed by Thomas A. Dorsey in the 1920s and 1930s. She is credited with "If You Just Keep Still," among others. She also appeared in the film "Say Amen, Somebody." Willie Mae Ford Smith died on February 2, 1994, in St. Louis County, Missouri.
ACSAP Biographical Dictionary
R. R. Bowker Co., Copyright 1980