||Willie Mae Ford (June 23, 1904 – February 2, 1994), also known as Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith, was an American gospel singer described by The New York Times as “one of the most important gospel singers of the century”.
She was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi on June 23, 1904, the seventh of fourteen children. Her family moved to Memphis, Tennessee when she was a child, and they moved again to St. Louis, Missouri when Smith was age 12. Her mother opened a restaurant in St. Louis, where Smith worked full-time, leaving school during the eighth grade. Her father was a railroad brakeman and a devoutly religious man. Raised in the Baptist church, she began singing with her sisters, Mary, Geneva, Lucille, and Emma, in a family group known as “The Ford Sisters”. The group, and Willie Mae in particular, achieved wide recognition after an appearance at the 1922 National Baptist Convention, which was their first public performance.
After her sisters married and retired from the family group, Smith pursued a solo career. She had a contralto voice, and thought about studying classical music, “but after hearing Artella Huchins sing gospel songs at the National Baptist Convention of 1926, she changed her career plans and devoted herself entirely to gospel music. She began singing professionally in churches in St. Louis and throughout the Midwest.”
Based in St. Louis, Missouri, she was one of the early associates of Thomas A. Dorsey and was an innovator in gospel music, introducing the “song and sermonette” style that other singers, such as Shirley Caesar and Edna Gallmon Cooke, made popular.
She married James Peter Smith in 1927, who owned a general hauling business, and shortly after their marriage she began traveling in musical revivals to supplement the family income. In the late 1920s, she was ordained as a minister. Dorsey heard her in 1931 and asked to help him co-found (along with Sallie Martin) the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, an organization devoted to spreading gospel music by training singers, choirs and composers. Smith served as the NCGCC’s director for many years, and became the principal singing teacher as head of its Soloists’ Bureau in 1936. She held that position until the late 1980s. Among her students were Myrtle Scott, Mahalia Jackson, and Brother Joe May, who gave her the affectionate name “Mother”. Teaming with Roberta Martin, Smith demonstrated how to make even familiar hymns such as “Jesus Loves Me” into deeper personal statements by slurs, note bending and other personalized adornments.
Smith was also a major figure within the Baptist Church as the Director of its Education Department of the National Baptist Convention before she became a member of a Pentecostal denomination, the COGIC. She considered herself a preacher and imbued her singing and sermonettes with an evangelical fervor. She was noted for her finesse, control and subtlety, but could also, like her protégé Brother Joe May, belt out hymns.
While her singing and performance style were highly influential on others, she did not begin a recording career until 1950. She was also a composer, but even more influential as an arranger. Her reinterpretations of hymns such as “Jesus Loves Me”, “Throw Out the Lifeline”, and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” influenced “a new generation of singers to include the songs in their repertoires”.
Smith developed a fine sensitivity to slights from others who did not appreciate her firm sincerity or thought she could be cheated. She also developed a rivalry with Sallie Martin that lasted for as long as they lived; the movie Say Amen, Somebody, filmed when both of them were in their seventies, showed that the fires had only gone down, not out. She had two biological children, William and Jacqueline, and an adopted daughter Bertha who was also her accompanist.
Smith died of congestive heart failure on February 2, 1994, at the Tower Village Nursing Home in St. Louis, aged 89.
Considered the greatest of the “anointed singers” — artists who live according to the spirit, and who perform with the ultimate aim of saving souls — Willie Mae Ford Smith was among the most legendary gospel vocalists of her era; rarely recorded, her enormous reputation instead rested almost entirely on her incendiary live performances, where her dramatic, physical style inspired many of the finest soloists to follow in her wake. She was also the first to introduce the “song and sermonette,” the act of delivering a lengthy sermon before, during, or after a performance. Smith was born in 1906 in Rolling Fork, MS and raised in Memphis; one of 14 children, she was the daughter of a railroad brakeman who relocated the family to St. Louis in 1918. There her mother opened a restaurant, where Smith soon began working full-time, leaving school during the eighth grade; though raised as a devout Baptist, she sang everything from blues to reels as a child, but upon forming her family quartet the Ford Sisters, she turned solely to gospel.
Debuting at the National Baptist Convention in 1922, the Fords created a sensation with their performances of “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” and “I’m in His Care.” After her sisters married and quit the group, Smith mounted a solo career; a high soprano, she briefly flirted with pursuing classical music, but was so profoundly moved by Detroit’s Madame Artelia Hutchins’ performance at the 1926 Baptist Convention that she returned to gospel once and for all. Upon marrying a man who operated a general hauling business, Smith began touring to supplement their household income; with the exception of the legendary Sallie Martin, she was arguably the first gospel performer to tour relentlessly, conducting musical revivals in many of the cities she visited. In her travels Smith crossed paths with Thomas A. Dorsey, who in 1932 invited her to Chicago to help organize the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. She later formed a St. Louis chapter, and was the longtime head of the soloists’ bureau.
Smith’s rendition of her own composition “If You Just Keep Still,” delivered at the 1937 National Baptist Convention, set a new standard for solo singing; just as influential was her skill as an arranger, with her radical reinterpretations of chestnuts like “Jesus Loves Me,” “Throw Out the Lifeline,” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” galvanizing a new generation of singers to include the songs in their repertoires. As a teacher, Smith also mentored Brother Joe May, Myrtle Scott, Edna Gallmon Cooke, and Martha Bass. She joined the Church of God Apostolic in 1939, and immediately her music reflected the rhythm and energy of the sanctified church; still, she did not finally begin recording until the end of the following decade — with her protégé May enjoying massive success with her style, she saw no point in entering the studio. Only a handful of Smith recordings were issued in her own lifetime, and by the early ’50s, she had turned to evangelical work; still, she continued to remain a great inspiration, dying on February 2, 1994.
Source: Jason, Ankeny, All Music Guide