It had been a full decade since mountainous blues belter Big Maybelle had found her way onto the R&B hit parade when Jack Taylor’s Harlem-based Rojac Records restored her to national prominence in 1966. It hadn’t been an easy decade for Maybelle, but little about her life resembled a cakewalk. She’d waged a long struggle with heroin addiction and suffered from diabetes. But those physical maladies failed to silence her fabulous pipes.
You could always tell it was Maybelle singing, four bars or less into any of her classic platters. She had a curious burr in her voice and a touching vulnerability. It was particularly acute on the smoky after-hours blues ballads that were her specialty from the early 1950s on. Maybelle could rock the house, make no mistake; she cut “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” long before a cocky young piano pounder from Ferriday, Louisiana latched onto it and made it his eternal signature theme. But she could absolutely tear your heart out on the slower stuff. The woman clearly knew what pain was all about.
Rojac was the last label Maybelle recorded for. In search of that elusive hit that would relaunch her career, Taylor gave her some of the most challenging material she ever tackled, stuff miles outside her wheelhouse. That she actually squeaked onto the pop charts in early 1967 with a soulful rendering of ? & the Mysterians’ garage rock anthem “96 Tears,” even as the original was falling out that very same hit parade, was a truly remarkable achievement, testifying to her uncommon resiliency.
Big Maybelle ultimately lost her battle with diabetes in 1972 in Cleveland, Ohio. She’d bravely kept on singing until she couldn’t anymore.
“She was very soulful and very powerful” says Thelma Jones. “…She was one of the best, and one of the great soul singers of our time.”
– Bill Dahl from the extensive liner notes