Shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, songwriter Dick Holler penned a beautiful tribute, "Abraham, Martin and John," a meditative, poetic eulogy that also had a verse dedicated to Robert Kennedy. First recorded by Dion, it was famously covered by Marvin Gaye and has been covered many times by others. "Abraham, Martin and John" is mellow, sad, polished, catchy and built for AM-gold glory. But the rhetoric of the song ("Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin?" and so on) is a little too smooth.
A better candidate for the best-ever MLK tribute title: Big Maybelle's visceral, angst-ridden dirge, "Heaven Will Welcome You, Dr. King," a searing shriek from the depths of the soul. Unlike "Abraham, Martin and John," "Heaven Will Welcome You, Dr. King" was not designed for AM radio. The lyrics (by Jack Taylor) are very simple. They don't rely on poetic devices. They appear to have been straightforwardly written and recorded while the pain of the moment was still overwhelming.
The song seems to have lain dormant for years. It was released on iTunes and Amazon.com in 2009 on a two-song "album," along with her cover of "Eleanor Rigby" (which certainly deserves to be known by Beatles fans far and wide). "Heaven Will Welcome You, Dr. King" doesn't even sound as if it was fully produced, and that feels appropriate; the rawness of the sound mirrors the rawness of the emotion. It is less pristine, clear-sounding, marketable, music-business commodity than intensely and authentically felt horror and anguish. The anger and sadness in her voice is matched by the playing of the musicians. It adds up to a mighty lament, an expression of darkest funerary gloom, unimpeded by any sweetness or light, evoking the emotions of what that April 1968 morning must have been like.
And such renditions were not Big Maybelle's style, further highlighting its power. Largely forgotten today, she was a rocking and rolling superstar who could belt out a tune like few others. Born Mabel Louise Smith in Jackson, Tenn., in 1924, she died in 1972 at only 47 because of complications from diabetes, after a remarkable career that undoubtedly was held back by bigoted forces of the day, from weight discrimination to racial discrimination.
Music writer David Ritz has called her "the most underrated singer of this entire epoch." Without a doubt, she had one of the most distinctively energetic styles and exciting voices in rhythm and blues. Listen to how she says the word "I" in the lyric "I feel blue" throughout her stunning "Black Is Black." Oh, my! (Sorry, I know, I'm not able to listen to anything else now, either.)
Many people may know her from the documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day (1959), which featured her extraordinary performance of "I Ain't Mad At You" at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, where she performed alongside Count Basie Orchestra alums — the jazz legends Buck Clayton, Papa Jo Jones and Buddy Tate, among others.
Her overall place in the history of jazz has probably been underreported. John Coltrane played with her band for years, from the late 1940s through 1954, before he joined Miles Davis. Prior to Coltrane's fame as a soloist, Big Maybelle is said to have called him her "favorite musician." Her 1956 hit, "Candy," reached new audiences after being featured in a 1986 episode of The Cosby Show. She could also do gospel with an R&B slant (or vice versa), as "Do Lord" shows.
Big Maybelle's obituary in Jet is quite ironic, since it is bifurcated by a story about Coretta Scott King giving an award to and throwing a party for Motown executive Junius Griffin. While that is all well and good, Big Maybelle was one of the few artists at the time who paid tribute to King on vinyl, and certainly the only one who did so with such depth of feeling. Big Maybelle, as you said of Dr. King, "those of us who are lucky gonna see you again one day."
To listen to Big Maybelle's tribute to Dr. King, check out this YouTube video.
Paul Devlin is a graduate student at SUNY Stony Brook.