Saturday Single No. 265

I’m not at all certain when I first heard of Big Maybelle. I might have read something about her during my digging into R&B  history in the 1980s and 1990s.

But I’m pretty sure the first time I heard her – and knew it was Big Maybelle’s voice coming through the speakers – was in January 2000, when I made a trip to Cheapo’s and brought home the two-LP set Big Maybelle: The Okeh Sessions, a collection of twenty-two recordings that Maybelle Smith laid down between October 1952 and March 1955.

Ten years later, I supplemented the vinyl set with a CD package that includes those twenty-two recordings and four more, evidently unearthed since the vinyl was released. Add to those packages some tracks I’ve found in various anthologies, a few albums I’ve found in various crevices on the ’Net, and one more CD, and I have about three hours’ worth of music by Big Maybelle.

I’m not at all sure why I’m fascinated by the story and the music of Maybelle Smith, who was born in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1924 and who passed on – from complications of diabetes – in 1972. She was, as one might expect from her name, a large woman, weighing – according to one account – more than two-hundred-and-fifty pounds. Based on some things I’ve read, she was stubborn and a little hot-headed; and it’s certain – from Peter Grendysa’s notes to the CD The Complete Okeh Sessions and things I’ve read elsewhere – that heroin addiction shortened both her career and her life.

She wasn’t unknown during her lifetime: She placed six records on the Billboard R&B Top 40 between 1953 and 1966. The first three – “Gabbin’ Blues,” “Way Back Home” and “Country Man,” all from 1953 – made the R&B Top Ten. Her last R&B hit, in 1966, also resulted in her only appearance in the Billboard Hot 100: A cover of ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears,” which went to No. 96 in the Hot 100 and to No. 23 on the R&B chart.

Big Maybelle could shout and she could rock, which one might expect, given the tradition of black women in blues and R&B that tracks all the way back to Ma Rainey and includes Bessie Smith and (skipping many) Big Mama Thornton. But she could also handle softer stuff with tenderness, as she did with “Don’t Pass Me By” on the Rojac label in 1966.

During her career, Big Maybelle recorded for a variety of labels. (Check out her discography at Soulful Kinda Music.) I have yet to dig up a lot of the stuff she recorded for Savoy and Brunswick in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which I’d be interested in hearing. This week, I’ve been looking into stuff she recorded for Rojac – like the track linked above – in the mid- to late 1960s. Somewhere out on the ’Net a while back, I came across The Last of Big Maybelle, which intrigued me; wanting session information about the tracks, I ordered the CD, only to find there’s really no discographical information in the package. I’ve been doing some digging, and I’ve found likely original sources for sixteen of the twenty-two tracks. I’ll keep digging on the remaining six.

At the same time, I’ll look for the Savoy and Brunswick stuff. I got a taste of the former a few years ago when the Texas Gal gave me a four-CD box set of music from the Savoy label. One of the tracks in that set was Big Maybelle’s “Blues Early, Early (Parts 1 & 2).” And as I was checking the notes this morning, I noticed that the track – originally released as two sides of a 45 – had been recorded on November 26, 1957, fifty-four years ago today.

But, as nifty as it would have been to share that tune in a video, YouTube informs me that it’s not allowed. So I’ll drop back to one of her three R&B hits from 1953. Here’s “My Country Man,” which went to No. five on the R&B chart, fifty-eight years ago this week. And it’s today’s Saturday Single.


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