Willa Mae Ford Smith
Willa Mae Ford Smith
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, Mississippi and raised in Memphis. One of fourteen 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 protegé May enjoying massive success with her style, she saw no point in entering the studio. Only a handful of Smith’s recordings were issued in her own lifetime, and by the early 1950s she had turned to evangelical work. Still, she continued to remain a great inspiration, dying on February 2, 1994.
Jason Ankeny, All Music Guide