Not a name that springs to mind when you think of Alternative Black female performers, but Moms Mabley was a pioneer act, who began her career in the 1920’s on the Chitlin’ Circuit of African-American Vaudeville her performances running through to the 60’s when she appeared on television including the Ed Sullivan Show.
Raped at the age of 11 by an old Black man and the age of 13 by a White sheriff, both of which resulted in pregnancy (the children were sent for adoption), Loretta encouraged by her grandmother ran away from home to join a Travelling Vaudeville Minstrel Show in Cleveland, Ohio.
She was once quoted as saying “I was pretty and did not want to become a prostitute”, about her decision to go into show business. She could sing, dance, and tell a joke, which made her popular on the black vaudeville circuit, the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA), which toured the South in the tradition of the pre-Civil War minstrel shows. Although Mabley was a capable singer and dancer, her primary strength was comedy and she would often appear in skits with other performers.
While performing on the TOBA circuit, she met Jack Mabley, another entertainer who became her boyfriend. After a brief relationship, she took his name and began to perform as Jackie Mabley. She said “he took a lot off me, the least I could do was take his name off him”.
Mabley had earned the nickname “Moms” because of her tendency to ‘mother’ her fellow performers, and she adopted this nickname for her character. In addition to her comedic stage performances as ‘Moms’, Mabley also performed in musical-comedies such as Miss Bandana in 1927, Fast and Furious in 1931.
Chess records home of Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Hoelin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry approached Moms to make a comedy album in 1960, as much of her earlier recordings had been lost, she recorded the brilliant ‘Funniest Woman In The World’.
Given the era she lived through, and her childhood circumstances it is amazing that she survived 5 decades in the business before becoming an cross cultural overnight success in the 1960’s.
Her list of credits are phenomenal:
She was the first successful female stand-up comedian.
She was the first woman comic to play at the Apollo in 1930, she was so popular she would appear in 15 week stints and also joined their comedy writing team.
She was the first women comedian to headline Carnegie Hall in 1962.
She was the first openly gay comedian (she liked to dress like Cab Calloway).
She appeared in 10 films and TV shows including ‘Emporer Jones’ with Paul Robeson and ‘Amazing Grace’ with Whoopie Goldberg in 1974 just before her death. She had a regular slot on the prime time TV show ‘The Smothers Brothers’.
She appeared in 9 major theatre productions in 1920’s and 1930’s, including ‘The Joy Boat’.
She was the oldest living person in the USA to have a Top 40 hit With ‘ Abraham, Martin and John’ in 1969.
Moms Mabley also recorded over 40 comedy albums in her career, many of which are lost, however in 1969 after the death of Martin Luther King she released a serious album of socially conscious* and soulful songs under the title ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ (not her usual satirical fair). Believe it or not I actually possess a copy of this album on vinyl.
Moms great one liners:
- Quit it if you can’t do nothin’ with it.
- Any time you see me with my arms around an old man, I’m holding him for the police.
- My husband was so ugly, he used to stand outside the doctor’s office and make people sick.
- Use those brains that God put in your head.
- It’s no disgrace to be old but damn if it isn’t inconvenient.
- [On old age:] You wake up one morning and you got it.
- [Advice to children crossing the street] Damn the lights. Watch the cars. The lights ain’t never killed nobody.
- You know Moms has been accused of liking young men and I’m guilty.
- Love is like playing checkers. You have to know which man to move.
- Ain’t nothin’ an ol’ man can do but bring me a message from a young one.
- I don’t want nothing old, but some old money. Buy me some young ideas. That’s what I’m gonna do with it.
- The teenagers aren’t all bad. I love ’em if nobody else does. There ain’t nothing wrong with young people. Jus’ quit lyin’ to ’em.
- Never lose your head, not even for a minute. You need your head. Your brain’s in it.
- Without that basic foundation in showmanship, an act can’t remain at the top. Half of the children nowadays don’t even know how to take a bow.
- Black women, white women; all of them. I’m colour blind. I don’t know the difference. I only know you’re a human being and you’re my children.