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Tribute to Willie Mae Ford Smith (1904 – 1994)

February 28th, 2011 by Black Gospel Choir
willie_mae
Based in St. Louis, Missouri she was one of the early associates of Thomas A. Dorsey and an innovator in gospel style, introducing the “song and sermonette” style that other singers, such as Shirley Caesar and Edna Gallmon Cooke made popular. She married in 1929 and, shortly after that, began traveling in musical revivals. Dorsey heard her in 1931 and asked to help him found the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, his organization devoted to spreading gospel music by training singers, choirs and composers. Smith became the principal singing teacher for the NCGCC as head of its Soloists’ Bureau in 1936. Among her students were 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. 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.

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