Known for her powerful voice and stage presence, singer Maybelle Louis Smith, also known as “Big Maybelle,” was one of the top R&B singers of the 1950s.
Born in Jackson, Tennessee, she was no stranger to being on stage and in front of an audience. Smith grew up singing in the local Sanctified Church choir in Jackson, and in 1932, she won first prize at the Cotton Carnival singing cabaret in Memphis. She started her professional career with Dave Clark’s Memphis Band in 1936, and then toured with an all-female band called the Sweethearts of Rhythm.
Smith toured with the Christine Chatman Orchestra from 1936 to 1940. During the 1950s, she sang with several orchestras, including the Quincy Jones Orchestra, the Kelly Owens Orchestra, and the Danny Mendelsohn Orchestra. However, it wasn’t until 1952 that Smith was “discovered” by producer Fred Mendelsohn, who gave her the nomer “Big Maybelle” and signed her to Okeh Records, which ultimately propelled her career.
Maybelle hit the charts in 1953 with “Gabbin’ Blues,” which hit number three on the Billboard R&B Chart. In 1955, she recorded the song “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On,” produced by up-and-coming producer Quincy Jones. She later moved on to Savoy Records. During this time, she had several more hits, such as “Tell Me Who,” “That’s a Pretty Good Love,” and Candy, and played at the Apollo Theater in New York City and the Newport Jazz Festival.
Although she was clearly very talented, she never quite hit the level of celebritydom that her voice deserved. Nevertheless, her talent was indeed recognized; as she had such a powerful voice, Billie Holiday once refused to follow her opening act.
Unfortunately, Big Maybelle struggled with heroin, which occasionally kept her from performing. In 1972, she dead of a diabetic coma. Almost 30 years after her death, her 1956 hit single “Candy” received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999.