She was born in Jackson, Tennessee, and was no stranger to performing in front of an audience. Smith grew up singing in the Sanctified Church choir in Jackson and won first place in the Cotton Carnival singing cabaret in Memphis in 1932. She began her professional career in 1936 with Dave Clark’s Memphis Band and later toured with an all-female band called the Sweethearts of Rhythm.
From 1936 to 1940, Smith toured with the Christine Chatman Orchestra. She performed with several orchestras during the 1950s, including the Quincy Jones Orchestra, the Kelly Owens Orchestra, and the Danny Mendelsohn Orchestra. However, it wasn’t until 1952 that Smith was “discovered” by producer Fred Mendelsohn, who gave her the nickname “Big Maybelle” and signed her to Okeh Records, launching her career.
Maybelle peaked at number three on the Billboard R&B chart in 1953 with “Gabbin’ Blues.” She recorded the song “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in 1955, which was produced by up-and-coming producer Quincy Jones. She later worked for Savoy Records. She had several more hits during this period, including “Tell Me Who,” “That’s a Pretty Good Love,” and Candy, and performed at the Apollo Theater in New York City and the Newport Jazz Festival.
Despite her obvious talent, she never achieved the level of celebrity that her voice deserved. Nonetheless, her talent was recognized; Billie Holiday once refused to follow her opening act because she had such a powerful voice.
Unfortunately, Big Maybelle struggled with heroin, which prevented her from performing on occasion. She died of a diabetic coma in 1972. Her 1956 hit single “Candy” received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999, nearly 30 years after her death.