Born May 1, 1024 in Jackson, Tennessee, Mabel Louise Smith was known in the music world as “Big Maybelle.” She was an American R&B singer, and also a pianist.
A gospel singer as a child growing up in Jackson, Tennessee, it was during her teen years that she began to sing R&B. Big Maybelle got her professional start in music when she sang with Drave Clark’s Memphis Band in 1936, and also toured with International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all female ensemble. In 1944, she made her first recordings; she was a pianist with Christine Chatman’s Orchestra. From 1947 to 1950, she performed with Tiny Bradshaw’s Orchestra.
Big Maybelle ventured out as a soloist, using her birth name Mabel Smith; the year was 1947, and she was backed by Oran “Hot Lips” Page. The album initially brought her little success. In 1952, though, Okeh Records signed her. Its record producer (Fred Mendelsohn) provided the stage name Big Maybelle.
“Gabbin’ Blues” made it to #3 on the Billboard R&B chart, while “Way Back Home” and “My Country Man” earned her similar fame in 1953. Produced by Quincy Jones, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On” was recorded in 1955 (two years prior to Jerry Lewis’ version), but her biggest hit came in 1956; “Candy” was produced by Savoy Records and it was a commercial hit. That year it reached # 11 on the Billboard R&B chart. Her last hit single came in 1967; Big Maybelle covered “96 Tears” by Question Mark & The Mysterians.
Big Maybelle sang at the Appollo Theater in NY City, as well as the Newport Jazz Festival (1958). In 1960, she appeared in the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day. However, after 1959 Big Maybelle recorded for many different music labels, but her music saw no additional hit songs. She performed in the early 1960s until a drug addiction and health problems related to diabetes ended her career in music.
On January 23, 1972, Big Maybelle died in Cleveland, Ohio while in a diabetic coma. She was survived by her Barbara Smith, her only child.
Last of Big Maybelle, Mabel Louise Smith’s final album, was released posthumously in 1973. In 1983, her album The Okeh Sessions (Epic label) was awarded the W.C. Handy Award for “Vintage or Reissue Album of the Year.” In 1999, her 1958 single “Candy” received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award. (Big Maybelle’s version had been featured on a 1986 episode of The Cosby Show entitled "A Touch of Wonder," in which Claire lip syncs it to lure Heathcliff downstairs for some snuggle time at the end of the episode.)
Big Maybelle was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011.