Born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, on 23 June 1904, Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith was one of the most popular and imitated gospel singers in the twentieth century. Her deep contralto and divine onstage splendor influenced such singers as Mahalia Jackson and Brother Joe May.
Willie Mae Ford was the seventh of fourteen children born to devout Baptists Clarence Ford and his wife, Mary. Clarence’s job with the railroad took the family first to Memphis and then to St. Louis in 1917. At around this time, Clarence organized four of his daughters—Willie Mae, Mary, Emma, and Geneva—into the Ford Sisters Quartet, a gospel group that performed around the Midwest throughout the early 1920s. An appearance at the 1922 National Baptist Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, ultimately made Willie Mae a sought-after singer when the quartet split a few years later.
Willie Mae Ford married James Peter Smith in 1924, and they had two children while she began a career as solo gospel artist. While on tour in the early 1930s, Smith met Thomas A. Dorsey, beginning a long-lasting professional relationship in which she worked with Dorsey’s National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. From 1936 until the late 1980s, she served as director of the convention’s Soloist Bureau, evaluating, coaching, and influencing a who’s who of gospel singers: Roberta Martin, Mahalia Jackson, Edna Gallmon Cooke, Martha Bass, Myrtle Scott, the O’Neal Twins, and Brother Joe May. It was May who gave Smith the nickname Mother.
With her adopted daughter, Bertha, as her accompanist, Smith toured the Midwest gospel circuit during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1939 Smith joined the Pentecostal Denomination, Church of God Apostolic, a conversion that added fervor and bounce to her singing and performing style. According to Horace Clarence Boyer, Smith’s “most notable contribution to gospel . . . was the introduction of the ‘song and sermonette’ into gospel music whereby a singer delivers a five- or ten-minute sermon, before, during, or after the performance of a song.”
Smith recorded beginning in 1950 for a variety of labels, including Nashboro, Savoy, and Spirit Feel, but had only modest success. Her career faded, and she returned to St. Louis, where she lived in a housing project for senior citizens and worked at a local mental health center. An appearance at the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival brought Smith into the national spotlight. She later performed at Radio City Music Hall and was featured in a 1981 gospel documentary, Say Amen, Somebody, and in Brian Lanker’s I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America (1989). In 1988 she received a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Smith continued to perform at the Lively Stone Apostolic Church in St. Louis, where she had been an ordained minister since the 1950s, until her death on 2 February 1994.
- Horace Clarence Boyer and Lloyd Yearwood, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel (1995)
- William Thomas Dargan and Kathy White Bullock, Black Music Research Journal (Autumn 1989)
- New York Times (3 February 1994)