Monday, April 27, 2009

Blues with Real Feeling: The Incredible Big Maybelle Smith

An appearance with Jimmy Witherspoon in Detroit at the Flame Show Bar in 1952 helped to launch Big Maybelle's prolific career as a rhythm and blues singer. While never achieving the recognition of her contemporaries Ruth Brown, Little Esther and Big Mama Thorton who worked in the same style, Big Maybelle (Mabel Smith) was a formidable live performer who cut some exceptional records in the 1950's and continued to work in the soul and rhythm and blues vein throughout the 1960's until her death in 1972. She also performed with some of the top jazz and R&B musicians of her time, including legendary trumpet man Hot Lips Page, pianists Erroll Garner and Willie Mabon, and tenor sax ace Gene Ammons. She also hit the hottest R&B venues of the day: The Apollo Theater in New York, The Earle Theater in Philadelphia, Chicago's Crown Propeller Lounge and Kansas City's famous Orchid Room. Interestingly, her popularity coincides with the crossover trend, and there is evidence that her 1950's recordings had some impact of young white rock and rollers of the decade.

Big Maybelle's first recordings appear on the Okeh label, then a subsidiary of Columbia records. Maybelle's first Okeh recording, "Gabbin Blues," (1952) which includes running dialogue, climbed quickly on the R&B charts enjoying urban popularity in mid-west cities. Big Maybelle continued to tour extensively in order to promote her recordings and hook up with legendary performers. Her 1954 hit "I'm Getting Along Alright" demonstrates a more polished sound with a superb R&B backing, as does her incredible take on getting jilted, "One Monkey Don't Stop the Show," which features super tight R&B backup and sweet guitar work. Maybelle's version of this tune seems to be the forerunner to the more famous song recorded by sixties soul artist Joe Tex, which in turn was covered by the Animals in 1965. Also of great interest is Maybelle's 1955 rendition of "Whole Lotta Shakin," produced for her by the young Quincy Jones. Maybelle's version is the second recording of this song, and appears two years prior to Jerry Lee Lewis' earth-shaker in 1957. Rockabilly Sun recording legend Warren Smith also covers "Tell me Who," a song Maybelle recorded at an earlier date with more of a straight early rock and roll sound.

Big Maybelle continued to record into the sixties and her style, dictated by the success of the Motown sound, takes a decided turn toward soul and songs with broader appeal, such as a cover of the Beatles's "Eleanor Rigby" and another of Question Mark and the Mysterian's 96 Tears. It's entirely understandable why Big Maybelle pivots in this direction, but for me, nothing compares with her classic 1950's recordings.

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