by Amanda Wyatt
Before Aretha Franklin became the undisputed Queen of Soul, there was Big Maybelle.
Hailed as America’s “Queen Mother of Soul,” soulful songstress Maybelle Smith was one of the biggest names in blues/R&B during the 1950s. But today she will be played by one of the biggest names in Broadway, the Tony and Emmy award-winning Lillias White, in a new musical at Bay Street Theater.
The preview of Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues is slated for August 7, four days before its August 11premiere. Written and directed by Paul Levine, the musical is the very first to tell the story of the talented, but troubled crooner.
“When I direct, I like to make people feel stuff,” said Levine. “[The audience is] going to feel this woman’s brilliance and the enormous talent of Lillias White playing her. They’re going to feel the life of a blues singer in the 1950s, which was very difficult. [They’ll feel her] struggle with weight, with dependency issues, with health issues.”
“And racism, a major problem during that period,” White added.
“It’s a period that a lot of people think of as an Ozzie and Harriet, Doris Day kind of world, and it’s much more than that, so I want them to feel all of that,” agreed Levine.
Born Mabel Louise Smith in 1924, Big Maybelle grew up in Jackson, Tennesse in the heyday of Jim Crow and other severe forms of racism. Like many African American singers, Maybelle was reared in the gospel tradition, but began singing R&B as a teenager.
She spent her youth singing and playing the piano both in bands and as a solo artist, but she didn’t find stardom until she was signed to Okeh Records in 1952. With hits like “Gabbin’ Blues,” “Way Back Home” and “My Country Man,” she quickly established herself as one of rhythm and blues’ brightest stars.
In 1953, Quincy Jones produced her recording of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On”— a song which would later be a massive hit for Jerry Lee Lewis. Three years later, she released “Candy,” which remains her signature song.
Maybelle performed at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, as well as the Newport Jazz Festival, before her career took a downward turn in the 1960s. Between drug addiction and other health problems, she stopped performing in person. In January 1972, she went into a diabetic coma at a Cleveland rehabilitation center/psychiatric hospital, where she died.
“Twenty years ago, somebody gave me her music, and I had never heard her before,” said Levine. “Then [a couple of years ago], I woke up one morning and her voice was in my head saying ‘go do your research.’”
There was little information on Big Maybelle’s personal life, but the music was powerful enough for Levine to construct a story around.
“Whatever research there was, I used, but we created a dramatic narrative based on the music and the lyrics that Maybelle sang and put them in a dramatic order, and I spun a story around it,” he said.
And for Levine, White was the perfect choice for the role of Maybelle.
“Mr. Levine came to me at a wonderful little theater, the Rubicon Theater, up in Ventura, California,” recalled White. “I was doing a show called The Best is Yet to Come — it was a Cy Coleman Review — and Mr. Levine came to see the show and pitched the idea of me doing Big Maybelle.”
“I heard her sing, I saw her perform, I saw her get two standing ovations in the middle of the show, and I offered her the role right afterwards,” said Levine.
In the fall of 2010, Levine and White teamed up to do a workshop of Big Maybelle in New York City.
“It went very well,” Levine remembered.
In fact, White not only received multiple standing ovations from the audience, but also immediately attracted the attention of corporate sponsors who wanted to invest in the project.
“Then a friend of ours got it to Bay Street, and they said, ‘Love it! Come on down!’” Levine said. “And here we are.”
In order to prepare for the role, the Brooklyn-born White said, “I have listened to her music incessantly. I’m still doing so.”
“And I’m reinventing my voice,” she added. “I’m going back to my vocal coach, Susan Eichhorn, to put her voice in my voice. Her voice is quite lower in register than mine, so I’m still working that out to do what hers does. It’s a process.”
This is not the first time White has played a musical superstar of the 1950s. She appeared as Dinah Washington in the musical Dinah Was, although she noted that Washington and Maybelle were two very different characters.
“Dinah was a lot more aggressive, a lot more gung-ho. Dinah had her own business and she contributed a lot of her money to the Civil Rights Movement,” White said. “I think that Maybelle was so busy trying to make a living that she didn’t get to do all of those things.”
“And finding love, being loved, and giving love was a big part of [Maybelle’s life],” added Levine.
When asked how she was preparing for the role, White exclaimed: “Practice, practice, practice! We’re in rehearsal, I’ve learned the music and we’re still tweaking music, we’re still tweaking the book.”
“Theater is an ongoing process, up until the day we open on Broadway — please God,” she said. “And even after the show has opened, a good actor is still working on the part and making it as true to life and as real as it can be.”
Big Maybelle, which Levine hopes will run either on or off-Broadway, will be at Bay Street through September 2.