Mabley, Jackie “Moms” 1897(?)–1975
Jackie “Moms” Mabley 1897(?)–1975
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Wearing a baggy housedress, floppy shoes, a knit cap, and toothless smile, “Moms” Mabley simply had to walk onstage to get a laugh and when she went into her act it was clear why she was labeled “the funniest woman alive. “The matriarch of comedy for decades before her death in 1975, Mabley’s down-home brand of humor included jokes, stories, advice, philosophy, and her own special take on the social and political conditions of the day. Another constantheme was her disdain for old men and her almost fanatical appreciation of the younger sort. “There ain’t nothing an old man can do for me but bring me a message from a young one,” became one of her most famous lines. Finding fame in Harlem in the 1920s, Mabiey appeared at the hallowed Apollo Theater more than any other performer, but mainstream success with white America eluded her until the early sixties when she recorded a string of popular comedy albums. Her audience-”my children,” as she called them-continued to grow but Mabley didn’t make an appearance on television until a Harry Belafonte special in 1967 and her only major movie role was in 1974’s Amazing Grace, released less than a year before her death. Still, Mabley’s legacy as a pioneer in comedy is unwavering and she continues to be saluted in plays about her life and by young black comedians who cite her as an influence.
“Moms” Mabley was born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, North Carolina, one of twelve children born to Jim Aiken, a grocery store owner, and his wife. The great grand-daughter of a slave, Mabiey was of mixed black, Irish, and Cherokee heritage. Very little is known about her early years. Some accounts have her running away and joining a minstrel show at the age of fourteen because her father forced her to marry an older man while she told one interviewer that she was an unwed mother in her early teens. “We didn’t get married up in the mountains,” Mabiey remarked in Women in Comedy};.”I did get engaged two or three times, but they always wanted a free sample. That’s how I got stuck.”
While researching Mabiey for the play Moms, in the mid-eighties, actress Clarice Taylor discovered that Mabiey had been raped at the age of eleven by an older black man and then again two years later by the town’s white
At a Glance…
Awards: Gold Record for The Funniest Woman in the World, 1960.
Comedienne. Began performing in the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA), circa 1915; changed name to Jackie Mabley, circa 1920; discovered by Butter-beans and Susie in Dallas and signed to a talent agent, 1921 ; first played in the Harlem Renaissance theaters of New York, 1923; appeared in the musicals Miss Bandana, 1927 and Fast and Furious, 1931 ; appeared in the films Emperor Jones, 1933, Big Timers, 1945, Killer Dilier, 1948, Boarding House Blues, 1948, and Amazing Grace, 1974; albums for Chess Records include, The Funniest Woman in the World; At the UN; At the Playboy Club; At the Geneva Conference; Breaks It Up; Young Men, Si; IGot Something to Tell You; Funny Sides; Moms Wows; Best of Moms Mabley; Man in My Life; Moms Breaks Up the Network; Sings; albums for Mercury Records include Out on a Limb; Mom the Word; At the White House; Her Young Thing; Now Hear This; Best of Moms; Abraham, Martin, and John; Live at Sing Sing; I Like ’Em Young; first appearance on television, A Time for Laughter, 1967; subsequent appearances on the Flip Wilson Show, the Bill Cosby Show, the Smothers Brothers show, the Ed Sullivan show; appeared on Grammy Award show, 1973; play on Mabley’s life, Moms, written by Ben Caldwell and featuring Clarice Taylor opened, 1986.
sheriff. Both rapes resulted in pregnancies and the children were given away for adoption. More hardship followed when Mabley’s father, who was also a volunteer fireman, was killed when a fire engine exploded and her mother was run over by a truck while returning home from church on Christmas Day. Although it is unclear whether Mabley was ever forced to marry a man against her will, arranged marriage became a staple of her comedy act. “My daddy liked him so I had to marry that old man,” she’d say. “He was the nearest to death you’ve ever seen in your life. His shadow weighed more than he did. He got out of breath threading a needle. And ugleeee! He was so ugly he hurt my feelings...He was so weak, when we got married somebody threw one grain of rice and it knocked him out.”
At the age of fourteen, Mabley left North Carolina to seek her fortune as an entertainer. “I was pretty and didn’t want to become a prostitute,” she’s quoted as saying in Funny Women, 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. “Jack was my first boyfriend,” Mabley recalled to Ebony in 1974. “I was real uptight with him and he certainly was real uptight with me; you’d better believe. He took a lot off me and the least I could do was take his name.”
While performing in Dallas one night in 1921 Mabley was spotted by the song and dance team of Butterbeans and Susie, an act noted for risque comedy songs like “I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll. ““They told me I was too good for the place I was in,” she recalled to Ebony,”and they said they would send me to an agent who would get me more money and some better bookings.” Mabley signed with the agent and became a regular on the “Chitlin Circuit,” a string of urban ghetto moviehouses and theaters, and was making upwards of $90 a week compared to the $14 a week she’d been pulling in with TOBA. By 1923, Mabley had traveled to New York where she began performing in famous Harlem Renaissance theaters like Connie’s Inn and the Cotton Club and often shared the stage with legendary performers like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway.
While still in her twenties and performing on the TOBA circuit, Mabley began to develop the stage persona of a wise old woman who wore the flappy clothes that later became her trademark. “I had in my mind a woman about 60 or 65, even, when I first came up,” Mabley recalled to Mark Jacobson of New York,”she’s a good woman, with an eye for shady dealings...she was like my granny, the most beautiful woman I ever knew. She was the one who convinced me to go make something of myself...she was so gentle, but she kept her children in line, best believe that.” 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 which featured the writer Zora Neale Hurston, as well as small, race movies including Paul Robeson’s Emperor Jones in 1933.
In 1939 Mabley became the first female comedian to perform at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, a major venue for black performers. Mabley soon became a regular at the Apollo and would often play for fifteen-week stints, changing her act each week. She also contributed to the writing of comedy shows at the Apollo as well as writing her own act with the help of her younger brother, Eddie Parton. She quickly became a favorite with the Apollo audiences, who began laughing as soon as she walked on the stage. By the 1950s, Mabley had become a popular attraction in black nightclubs around the country. “In thirty-five minutes on stage,” she’s quoted as saying in Funny Women, “I can keep laughter in a certain range, building higher and higher ‘til when I tell the last joke, they’re all laughing like mad.” Despite her popularity with blackaudiences, however, mainstream success with white audiences still eluded her.
While her quest for a young man was a pervasive part of her act, Mabley also began to incorporate absurd tales from her “life” such as hanging out on the White House lawn with President Eisenhower, Adam Clayton Powell, Bo Diddley, and Big Maybelle. Or the advice she used to give to then First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower: “I said, ’Listen, Mame.’ And she said, “Yes, Mrs. Mabley.’” Because she incorporated race related stories in her act, Mabley is considered one of the pioneers of social satire. Mel Watkins, author of On the Real Side, a history of black humor, noted that Mabley “foreshadowed the shift to direct social commentary and stand-up techniques that would define humor by the late fifties.” Typical of these race related tales was the story Mabley would tell of driving in the South: “I was on my way down to Miami... I mean They-ami. I was ridin’ along in my Cadillac, you know, goin’ through one of them little towns in South Carolina. Pass through a red light. One of them big cops come runnin’ over to me, say, “Hey woman, don’t you know you went through a red light?’ I say, “Yeah I know I went through a red light.’ “Well, what did you do that for?’ I said, ’Cause I seen all you white folks goin’ on the green light...I thought the red light was for us!’”
In the late 1950s, comedy records became wildly popular and record companies were actively looking to cash in on the trend. Chess Records, home of blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf and rock and roll legends Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, approached Mabley about recording a comedy album. After some hesitation, Mabley signed on with Chess in 1960 and recorded The Funniest Woman Alive before a live audience in Chicago. The record went on to sell over one million copies and earned Mabley a gold record. In 1966, Mabley recorded Now Hear This for the Mercury label, an album so full of raunchy tales and blue humor that it became a hit at stag parties. Mabley’s raw humor is often cited as a reason for her lack of television appearances, a topic she addresses in Watkins’s book. “It’s you and others in your position,” she explained to a group of television executives, “who keep me working where I have to use that kind of material.”
Mabley first appeared on television in 1967 on A Time for Laughter, an all-black comedy show produced by Harry Belafonte. Other spots followed on the Flip Wilson Show, the Smothers Brothers Show, as well as shows hosted by Mike Douglas and Bill Cosby. By the late 1960s, Mabley’s television appearances and hit comedy records had made her a bona fide star. Her salary at the Apollo increased from $1,000 a week in 1961 to a $10,000 a week headline spot in 1968. After nearly fifty years in show business, Mabley was an overnight success.
In 1974 Mabley starred in Amazing Grace, the story of an honest woman who tries to reform a corrupt black politician. Playing the title role of Grace Teasdale Grimes, it was Mabley’s first movie project since her small roles in the race films of the thirties and forties. “It sho’ wasn’t because I didn’t have the talent, “she told Ebony about the dearth of movie roles for her. “I can do almost anything connected with show business. I was taught to do everything.” During the filming of Amazing Grace, Mabley suffered a serious heart attack. She had a pacemaker installed and returned to the set three weeks later to complete the film. The film opened to mixed reviews, but did well enough at the box office to be considered a success for Mabley. Unfortunately, success came only at the end of her career. “I try not to be bitter,” she confessed to Jacobson. “I would have liked to have gotten my chance earlier, but that’s the way things were in those days...better times are coming.”
Following the release of Amazing Grace, Mabley’s health took a turn for the worse and she died on May 23, 1975. “Had she been white,” comedian Dick Gregory said at her funeral, “she’d have been known fifty years ago.” Although Mabley enjoyed mainstream success only for a brief time, she still occupies an important place in the history of American comedy. A social and show business pioneer, Mabley worked hard, persevered despite many obstacles, and made the road to success easier for future black performers. “I just tell folks the truth,” she’s quoted as saying in Funny Women.”If they don’t want the truth, then don’t come to Moms. Anybody that comes to me, I’ll help ’em. I don’t say anything I don’t mean.”
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Mabley, Jackie "Moms"
Mabley, Jackie "Moms"
March 19, 1897
May 23, 1975
The comedienne Jackie "Moms" Mabley was born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, North Carolina; she was one of twelve children of mixed African-American, Cherokee, and Irish ancestry. During childhood and adolescence, she spent time in Anacostia (in Washington, D.C.) and Cleveland, Ohio. Mabley—who borrowed her name from Jack Mabley, an early boyfriend—began performing as a teenager, when she joined the black vaudeville circuit as a comedienne, singer, and dancer, appearing with such well-known performers as Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham, Cootie Williams, Peg Leg Bates, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. In the mid-1920s, she was brought to New York by the dance team of Butterbeans and Suzie. After making her debut at Connie's Inn, Mabley became a favorite at Harlem's Cotton Club and at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City, where she played with Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, among others. It was during this time that she began cultivating the frumpily dressed, granny-like stage personality for which she became famous. Trundling onto stage in a tacky housedress with a frilly nightcap, sagging stockings, and outsized shoes, "Moms"—as she was later known—would begin her ad-lib stand-up comedy routine, consisting of bawdy jokes ("The only thing an old man can do for me is bring a message from a young one") and songs, belted out in a gravelly "bullfrog" voice.
Mabley appeared in small parts in two motion pictures, Jazz Heaven (also distributed as Boarding House Blues, 1929) and Emperor Jones (1933), and collaborated with Zora Neale Hurston in the Broadway play Fast and Furious: A Colored Revue in 37 Scenes (1931) before she started performing regularly at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. By the time she made the film Killer Diller (1948), she had cultivated a considerable following among black audiences, as well as among fellow performers; it was not until 1960, however, when she cut her first album for Chess Records, that she became known to white audiences. Moms Mabley at the U.N., which sold over a million copies, was followed by several others, including Moms Mabley at the Geneva Conference, Moms Mabley—The Funniest Woman in the World, Moms Live at Sing Sing, and Now Hear This. In 1962 Mabley performed at Carnegie Hall in a program featuring Cannonball Adderley and Nancy Wilson. She made her television debut five years later in an all-black comedy special, A Time for Laughter, produced by Harry Belafonte. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, she was featured in frequent guest spots on television comedy and variety shows hosted by Merv Griffin, the Smothers Brothers, Mike Douglas, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, and others. In 1974 Mabley played the leading role in the comedy Amazing Grace, a successful feature film about a black woman's efforts to reform a corrupt black politician. She died of a heart attack the following year.
See also Apollo Theater; Armstrong, Louis; Basie, William James "Count"; Belafonte, Harry; Calloway, Cab; Cosby, Bill; Cotton Club; Ellington, Edward Kennedy "Duke"; Hurston, Zora Neale; Robinson, Bill "Bojangles"
Harris, Trudier. "Moms Mabley: A Study in Humor, Role Playing, and the Violation of Taboo." Southern Review 24, no. 4 (1988): 765–776.
"Jackie 'Moms' Mabley." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Detroit: St. James Press, 1997.
Obituary. New York Times, May 24, 1975, p. 26.
Williams, Elsie A. The Humor of Jackie Moms Mabley: An African American Comedic Tradition. New York: Garland, 1995.
pamela wilkinson (1996)