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OKEH 6931; NOVEMBER 1952



Comeback is a term that usually is reserved for artists who scored a succession of hits at some point in their career but then faced an extended commercial draught – usually years of steady releases to no widespread interest – before suddenly coming out of it as popular as ever.

But what about artists who hadn’t gotten any hits the first time around, nor any recognition whatsoever, but had shown promise that was clearly going unfulfilled and then due to the lack of any verifiable success were dropped by their label altogether, their career seemingly over.

Yet when they get another chance years later and immediately score a national hit the first time out, they’re credited merely with a breakthrough, not a comeback, even though technically speaking they were coming back from more than just a downturn, they were in effect coming back from the grave.


Let The Cat Out Of The Bag
How many chances are we entitled to in life in any endeavor?

There’s no set number of course, but when you seemingly miss out on every opportunity, or fall short when you do get an attempt, it can sometimes feel like you’ll never get another.

When it comes to making music, those chances are especially fleeting when you elicit no response the first time around, as Mabel Smith learned the hard way after her initial singles on King Records in the late 1940’s fell flat commercially and the company dropped her after a few subpar releases.

We can fault them for not giving her more appropriate material, saddling her with songs based on childhood nursery rhymes, but since they were the top label in all of rock at the time and had no shortage of hitmakers, you can understand their reluctance to nurture an underperforming singer, especially since at that point there wasn’t much evidence that female vocalists were able to attract audiences in rock ‘n’ roll yet.

From this point forward though, they’ll be kicking themselves for not being more patient.

At least King Records gave her a chance, which is more than you can say for the litany of other independent rock-based labels who were in far more desperate straits at the time just to stay afloat. Who among them couldn’t have used a powerhouse vocalist with impressive command in front of a microphone, if only to use her obvious talent as a calling card for the type of music they were making even if the resulting output failed to stir any interest.

All of which makes her re-emergence with the Top Ten smash Gabbin’ Blues under the new moniker Big Maybelle seem like long overdue vindication.

Let’s not fail to credit independent producer Fred Mendlesohn, formerly of Savoy and other labels, who heard her sing at a club and was as shaken up by her talent as if he’d been caught at ground zero in an earthquake. Overnight he became her biggest champion, bringing her to OKeh Records and launching her career in earnest.

The shockwaves were soon heard nationwide.


It’ll Be So Hot You Can’t Go Home
Records that are built around humor often have very brief shelf life. A joke tends to work because the punchline is unexpected, catching you off guard with your defenses down resulting in instinctual laughter.

But once heard and duly processed, the key requirements for eliciting that same response go out the window. The joke is still the same but you now anticipate the line and it loses much of its impact the second time around. It’s not uncommon to hear hit songs once a day or more when they’re at their commercial peak and as a result the same jokes that made you laugh the first time you heard it have a tendency to become almost grating by the tenth or twelfth spin.

That’s why the funnier songs that do endure tend to have really catchy musical frameworks where paying close attention to what is being said isn’t even necessary to get something out of it since at least you can just enjoy the ride itself.

But on Gabbin’ Blues they run roughshod over that idea by simultaneously stripping back the musical elements, or at least letting them slowly grind out, while putting the humor front and center via the song’s writer Rose Marie McCoy who plays the sarcastic gossip tormenting Maybelle from start to finish, causing the singer to run out of patience while coolly threatening her with retribution.

These are less back and forth exchanges and more like McCoy intruding on Maybelle’s vow of imminent vengeance via spoken asides that are so well-written and perfectly delivered that you almost start to believe that it’s her, not Maybelle, who should be credited as the lead artist.

McCoy’s career as a writer will have no shortage of classic sides, but this is certainly her most prominent showcase if for no other reason then the record hinges on her contributions vocally. If any of these snide put-downs miss their mark or grow tiresome it has the potential to go horribly wrong, but that’s never the case. You can almost see her rolling her eyes as she’s throwing barbs at the unflappable Maybelle, whose powerful delivery never wavers in the face of the acerbic wit of her co-star.

It’s tempting to say that Big Maybelle is playing second fiddle here, but that’s underestimating her vocal prowess, as all the humor plays off her remaining fully under control with a voice that seems built to rule over the heavens. If she falters in any way, gets rattled by the caustic shots being taken at her, or tries to use her singing to knock McCoy back down to size, the whole record falls apart.

But because Maybelle is solid as a rock, so precise in her technique and such an imposing presence, it allows McCoy’s biting remarks to hit their mark without doing the least bit of damage to Maybelle’s stature.

It’s funny as hell if you choose to focus strictly on Rose Marie McCoy, and majestically sung when you turn your focus to Big Maybelle and together they manage the trickiest of balancing acts on a song whose humor is its calling card but never its sole identity.


I’ll Stand Anywhere I Please
When this record shot into the charts you have to believe there was a lot of record companies who were kicking themselves for not picking up the talents of Big Maybelle, who for the past four years was reduced to singing in clubs in the Midwest hoping for her another break.

Cincinnati disc jockey Ernie Waits took Fred Mendlesohn to see her and the rest is history.

At OKeh Records she immediately found a sympathetic ear in guitarist/arranger Leroy Kirkland who gave her the tough but still subtly elegant backing she needed and instead of trying to make her sound coy, as King Records had been guilty of, they unleashed her on the microphone and on the world at large and thankfully the world was finally ready for her at last.

The odd thing is, Gabbin’ Blues is somewhat atypical of her future work, if only because the structure itself is so unusual, making her breakthrough – or comeback – something she wasn’t going to be able to, or willing to, repeat.

Yet it didn’t matter, because now that the public had heard the consummate skill she possessed all she needed was the support of qualified people at the company and there was truly no limit to what Maybelle (unquestionably the most skilled female rock singer until Aretha Franklin came along) could achieve.

It took far too long for Maybelle to get to this point, but now that she’s come back from being unceremoniously cast out of the land, take pity on anybody who dares to get in her way.


(Visit the Artist page of Big Maybelle for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)