Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Predicament

From her first album*, Big Maybelle Sings (Savoy LP 14005, October 1957) until the posthumous The Last Of Big Maybelle (Paramount LP 1011, 1973), Mabel Louise Smith was a steady and beloved presence on the U.S. music scene. Today, she is remembered most for her Okeh Recordings (buy them here) which she did early on in her career (1952-1955). Recently, her name was among the 2011 inductees for the Blues Hall of Fame.

However, throughout her career she never made it into the first line of performers. For one thing, because due to her feisty appearance she was for years the laughing stock of the press. Sadly enough, it's hard to find any news item of the epoch that doesn't refer to her weight:
The laughs that singers Bo Diddley and Big Maybelle Smith are getting in ex-deejay Allan Freed's Apollo Theatre show in Harlem when they finish their duet. Instead of the 150-pound Diddley picking up the 275-pound Big Maybelle in his arms, she carries him off stage on her shoulders, like a sack of pota- toes. (JET magazine, Feb 18, 1960)
     How the management at Chicago's Regal Theater worried about the beams holding up the stage when 300-pound, hip-shaking Tiny Topsy and the 460-pound blues shouter Big Maybelle appeared on the same bill and joined some 30 other top performers in a rousing grand finale that actually had the big movie house rocking. (JET magazine, Sept 7, 1961)
And I posted another item, likewise from JET, at the end. You can see Big Maybelle stepping in New York, and the photograph is accompanied by a caption that again refers, indirectly but quite clearly, to Big Maybelle's weight: »Doing the Twist to end all Twists.« Musically speaking, Big Maybelle's appearance was matched by appro- priate songs like »Candy« (with such memorable lines as »candy's always handy when I need sympathy«) which was her first recording for Savoy in 1956 (Savoy 1195A) and proved a solid hit.

Billboard ad Nov. 3, 1962
For another thing, after the mid-'50s-craze of classic R&B and blues-belting in the manner of the Big Mamas had faded record companies were increasingly at a loss of how to market a voice and a personality like Big Maybelle's. Things were to get worse when Big Maybelle left Savoy for Brunswick in 1961. The a&r men at Brunswick saw obviously no niche for a raspy-voiced blues shouter and moulded her into a MOR-pop singer, forcing pop-jazz ballads onto her and exposing her to a full orchestra with string section and all. Nonetheless, they sought a tie to Big Maybelle's past and made her re-record her former hit »Candy«. The song was then advertised with the words »Big Maybelle swings sweetly«. You can hear this version below, and mind Big Maybelle shrieking at around 3:30.

Brunswick LP # 754107 (1962)
Brunswick mis-handled Big Maybelle further by putting out an album entitled What More Can A Woman Do? (Brunswick LP # 754107). It con- tains Big Maybelle singing, most often rather awkwardly, songs which did not befit her vocal range or her style. The contrast between her rough belting style and the slickness demanded by most of the songs, between her deep voice and the vocal register of those tunes is painful to hear. At best we might consider it an attempt at cross-breeding contrasting musical styles, but surely this wasn't the idea behind it. So Big Maybelle was forced into a mould that wasn't hers when letting her do what she could best would have been a much better strategy.

There are some rare songs on the Brunswick LP that show that Big Maybelle could still cope with the predicament of not being allowed to be herself. To my taste, the best song on the LP is her version of »How Deep Is The Ocean«. Perhaps it is her deep and desperate-sounding voice that render this tune special, and from the very beginning, with the strings shivering deeply in menac- ing minor, Big Maybelle really gets into it. When her voice soars up you can still hear the belter she actually was but it doesn't sound out of place here.

Big Maybelle: »Candy« / »How Deep Is The Ocean« from the Brunswick LP # 754107 (1962):

 * * *

From JET, May 4, 1961, page 37.

*Note: The spurious album Epic »EG 7071« from 1954, widely referred to, did not exist in its time. I never saw a copy of it nor even a photo of the presumed cover.

No comments:

Post a Comment