Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Big Maybelle, You'll Never Know.
Big Maybelle, One Monkey Don't Stop No Show.

Bessie Smith's greatest heir, the mightiest voice of the '50s, and a singer whose reputation is unfortunately in some neglect today--here is Big Maybelle.

Mabel Louise Smith, born in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1924, was singing professionally by her early teens and spent the war years in a variety of minor-league swing bands. Producer Fred Mendelsohn found her singing in Cincinnati and, renaming her Big Maybelle (perhaps in the hopes of setting up a female rival to Big Joe Turner), signed her to Columbia, which was reviving its storied blues label OKeh for a rather ill-fated second life in the 1950s.

Maybelle was mainly given torch ballads to record at first, the finest of which is Harry Warren and Mack Gordon's "You'll Never Know," on which she bestows a marvelous vocal--the way she grips the phrase "you'll never know" with a cold fever each time she hits it, or how she suddenly transforms an ordinary bit of lyric to an aching lament (i.e., the way she sings "you went away...and my heart/it went with you" @1:20 into the track). The arrangement is first-rate as well--after a sax intro, Maybelle enters, lightly buoyed by vibes and bass/drums in the first verse; the sax dances in on the second verse, to become her full partner in the third.

"One Monkey Don't Stop No Show", by contrast, is pure, nasty rock & roll. Maybelle sings the verses in a loopy, lazy, hilarious drawl (reminiscent of the way Clyde McPhatter sang "Money Honey" the previous year) and then just belts the hell out of the chorus. A fantastic, fantastic track. (To make things confusing, this is not the Joe Tex song from 1964--Tex wrote that one, while Big Maybelle's was written by Singleton/McCoy--nor is it the Stick McGhee track from @1950. Nor is it the same as the Honey Cone version from the 1970s. It was a popular title to use, evidently.)

"You'll Never Know" was recorded on January 20, 1954, and released as OKeh 7026 (b/w "I've Got a Feeling"). "One Monkey" was recorded on September 23, 1954, but held until the following summer, when it was paired with Maybelle's mighty "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (OKeh 7060). This single, produced by the young Quincy Jones, didn't do much on the charts, but Sam Phillips definitely heard something in it...

Find on Big Maybelle's Complete OKeh Sessions.

Top photo-- fun in Guatemala, '54: one of the sadder, more forgotten Cold War battlefronts. The CIA arms and aids the coup toppling Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, in the rather uneuphonic "Operation PBSUCCESS" (that was the best they could do? How about "Operation: Snakefire" or something?) , in which "PBSUCCESS used an intensive paramilitary and psychological campaign to replace a popular, elected government with a political nonentity." View memos from the period, including the "selection of junta group", and various assassination proposals. Fifty years of corruption, violence and general awfulness later, even the CIA's historian admits "in light of Guatemala's unstable and often violent history since the fall of...Arbenz, we are perhaps less certain today than most Americans were at the time that this operation was a Cold War victory."

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