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KING 4207; FEBRUARY, 1948

 
 

 
Today we meet just the fourth female artist in rock’s first six months here on Spontaneous Lunacy, but although the name Mabel Smith adorning the record label might not raise a glimmer of recognition among curiosity seekers and thus lead some to believe she was destined to be quickly forgotten like Sheba Griffin whom we met back in November, rest assured this one will stick around for quite awhile.

Not that there’s much suspense as to who Mabel Smith morphed into since we’re using her most well-known sobriquet – Big Maybelle – as the heading for the sake of consistency as well as to ease search engine frustration, but regardless of what you call her, Big Maybelle’s addition to the ranks of female rock artists here joining Albennie Jones and Annie Laurie (along with Griffin) means that in terms of talent, despite the discrepancy in numbers, the girls can more than hold their own with the fellas.

If anything, the average talent of the women surpasses that of their male counterparts thus far. Three of the four (sorry Sheba) would leave a notable mark on rock history, though the passing years have certainly dimmed the wattage of their stars more than a little.

But of the gals, it’s the last of the fairer sex to be introduced thus far who remains the most modernly notable and who had the longest, most satisfying, career.
 

No One Else Can Fill
Mabel Smith was born in 1924 in Jackson, Tennessee where it didn’t take her long out of diapers before she was already a powerful singer, well known around her community for singing in church and talent shows and walking off with the highest accolades. By her early teens she was a professional, touring with Dave Clark, a Memphis bandleader of some renown. She had already learned piano, and while it wouldn’t feature on any of her recordings it’s likely that she was playing it at this point on stage. But the real focus, as always with her, was her voice.

A voice from the heavens.

To call Big Maybelle’s voice “powerful” would be an understatement, yet she wasn’t a screamer, wasn’t prone to vocal histrionics and wasn’t a blues belter, though was more than capable of doing all of that if called upon.

What Maybelle really was throughout her career was a versatile stylist, it’s just that her style encompassed virtually everything under the sun at one point or another. Blues, jazz, gospel, pop, and as we’ll soon see, rock, which is where she truly excelled and made her everlasting mark. She was a singer’s singer, arguably (and I’ll be the one to say that it should be inarguably) one of the handful of most talented female vocalists in rock history, as in Top Ten all-time. Not just for the voice itself but for the way she used it.

As an artist Maybelle intuitively understood the emotion behind each and every lyric and delivered them with nuance, sensitivity and the commanding presence of an Oscar winning actress. Her catalog over the next twenty years of recordings are a treasure trove of stunning performances, her roles in them never are anything less then stellar.

So, I suppose having given away the surprise of about 6 dozen or so future reviews in the span of a paragraph I should move on to this record in particular before spilling any more secrets, like revealing The Wizard Of Oz is just a small man behind a curtain, or the bad guys would’ve gotten away with whatever dastardly plan they tried on Scooby Doo “if not for those meddling kids” and when in doubt the butler always did it, whatever “it” was.
 

Baby, Let Me Buzz You
Maybelle’s voice on Sad And Disappointed Jill is already fully developed. Rich and expressive with just a hint of the country, but teeming with big city experience. She hit the ground running with a voice from the very start of her career that was her meal ticket. The question as with all great vocalists would be, what would surround it?

Here it’s the guitar that kicks it off and which has a lot of country blues twang to it, not surprising since it was played by the great Lonnie Johnson, perhaps the most exalted of the country-bluesman of the time. For the unaware among you, Johnson would soon hit big himself with Tomorrow Night, which Elvis Presley later copped while at Sun Records.

As skilled as Johnson is however his guitar gives this a bit of an uneasy footing stylistically. They’re recording for King Records, a label that would go on to be one of the foremost proponents of black rock music in the nation but who had made their early reputation on country music, so the early indication is they were leaning Maybelle towards a down home sensibility consistent with their image of this era. But any fear that they’d try easing her into the blues brackets goes out the window with the horn section, a veritable all-star team lead by trumpeter Hot Lips Page and tenor sax aces Hal Singer and Tom Archia, who do their best to keep it rooted in the breezy cool of more modern sensibilities.

But notably even with four stellar names backing her the focus remains firmly on the relative novice, which is a lot of pressure on a singer who just a month earlier stepped into a recording studio for only the second time in her life (the first being back in 1944 with Christine Chatman on “Hurry Hurry” in case you were wondering).

Yet right from the start she seems up to the challenge. Though Page gets a squawking solo with a deft reply by Johnson on guitar, they all step out of the way for the virtual rookie in front of the microphone.

Maybelle’s voice is in total control at every turn, despondent at times when lamenting her man’s departure, strident when recounting his attributes that made her love him, a little impatient and angry even as the bridge commences before shifting to a more rueful tone as it continues and she seems resigned to her misery. She employs a catch in her voice throughout, like she’s about to become overwhelmed by emotion and start sobbing, yet keeps it in check as if she’s too proud to let herself go to pieces.

For someone so inexperienced in a studio this left no doubt that she had plenty of experience on the bandstand, not to mention a natural interpretive skill that would never leave her.
 

Just A Bitter Pill
It’s a very strong vocal performance from start to finish, a well judged and genuinely thoughtful reading of the lyrics and she exhibits great control over the presentation. She never attempts to outshine the band as so many young singers instinctively would, yet tries deftly guiding them by her delivery, showing not just confidence but also an awareness of just what she needs to do in order to make the song come alive.

But what’s holding her back is the record’s production, its basic concept, one never sure where it stands stylistically, beset with conflicting ideas, none of them off-putting unto themselves had they chose only one direction in which to head, but clearly mismatched when all thrown into the mix and asked to find some middle-ground.

To start with the song itself is somewhat slight, its use of the Jack & Jill nursery rhyme theme injected into it comes off as a little forced even though it’s not played for gimmicks as its writing may have intended (if so, kudos to Maybelle for realizing that approach wouldn’t work and toning that aspect down). Most disappointing is the band, as skilled as they are as musicians and well as each they play individually their assigned roles here are simply vague and contradictory, none of it ultimately benefitting either the song or the singer. It’s not intentional sabotage by any means, but just a lack of compatibility in the design stage, like fitting an outboard motor on a school bus, or putting feathers on a fish.

Here the two dominant instruments, Johnson’s rural sounding guitar and the uptown jazzy horns, clash with one another throughout. The more they’re highlighted the less effectively they work, pulling the song in different directions, though thankfully at least nobody attempts to force their way in where they’re not needed. But it certainly wasn’t thought out well and since they’re unable to mesh naturally it winds up overshadowing what works.

The producer has to take the fall for this one, whoever it was, which is a shame considering Maybelle herself still manages to rise above it for the most part, delivering the song more than effectively despite the hindrance of the musical arrangement.
 

 

Sitting In The Corner
More than anything it’s a curious record, one that seems to hint that those in the King offices weren’t quite sure which market to aim Maybelle commercially.

At the time of this recording they were riding a huge hit with a more high class Bull Moose Jackson side that had unexpectedly crossed over into the white pop charts, and certainly Maybelle could deliver that type of song if they pushed her that way. They had some veteran jazz musicians behind her which would seem to position her to move towards a more swinging urbane setting, though this certainly wasn’t it. Yet the label had always appealed to what King president Syd Nathan called “the little man”, generally poorer, presumably rural listeners (both black and white, particularly in the south), whose less refined backwoods tastes were mostly ignored by bigger labels and thus the presence of Johnson would seem to indicate they were courting them.

Sad And Disappointed Jill seems as if it’s trying to hit all of those demographics in one fell swoop, maybe even using the record as a trial balloon to see which constituency, if any, it appeals to the most, then once they got some indication as to which audience gravitated towards her they’d try and direct her more that way in the future. But the only thing that approach assures you of is not appealing strongly enough to ANY of the public.

As a result, though she stands out already as a very promising vocalist, by far the strongest aspect of the record, the production of the song she’s given is too unfocused. It’s a soup with too many ingredients for any definitive taste to emerge from the bowl. It’ll still fill you up alright and taste okay going down if you’re hungry, but you won’t ask for seconds just yet and will hope the chef steps it up when the next course is served.

Chalk this one up as a misfire rather than a dud. Off-target in its aims, but an atomic bomb in her potential potency.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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