You know who hipped me? My grandmother. This is the truth! She lived to be 118 years old. And you wonder why Moms is hip today? Granny hipped me. She said, 'They lied to the rest of them, but I'm not gonna let you be dumb.' One day she's sitting out on the porch and I said, 'Granny, how old does a woman get before she don't want no more boyfriends?' She was around 106 then. She said, 'I don't know honey, you'll have to ask somebody older than me.'

— "Moms" Mabley

Born Loretta Mary Aiken in March of 1894, "Moms" Mabley was a remarkably successful Vaudeville entertainer. Her style was right to the point; she dealt with issues such as race and gender, always with a good dollop of blue language, long before any other comedian, male, female, black or white dared address these issues.

She borrowed her stage name, originally "Jackie Mabley," from a fellow she'd dated for a while. She justified the taking of his name because he "took so much from me." She affected the appearance of a frumpy old woman as early as her late 20s, wearing a housedress, droopy stockings and frumpy hats to great comic effect. She worked without teeth, and her unbelievably elastic facial expressions added greatly to her comic appeal.

Mabley paved the way for female comics, and is regarded as one of the best. Sure, she used vulgar language, but not unnecessarily so. It was her timing which was impeccable and which became a model for those who came after her. In her heyday (1958-1970), she was earning $10,000 a week playing Harlem's Apollo Theater. Back in 1939, she was the first female comedian to play the famous venue.

Hard Beginnings

She was born into a large family. Her grandmother had been a slave. Her father worked and was also a fireman. He died when Mabley was 11. Sources differ about the cause of his death, one saying his fire engine turned over and the other blamed an automobile accident. Not too long after that, Mabley's mother died when she was hit by a car.

Mabley had borne two children by age fifteen, both of whom were the result of rapes and both of whom she gave up for adoption. She lived with her step-father, who arranged a marriage for her to a much older man.

She finally got up the courage to flee life in North Carolina and moved north to pursue a career as a dancer and singer in theaters and Vaudeville houses. One of her brothers, a deeply religious man, tried to persuade her not to get into show-business, but she'd become bitten by the bug. The lime-lights sang their siren song to her.

A Prolific Recording Artist

As early as the 1930s, she signed a contract with the black-owned Okeh label. Her comedy was interspersed with satirical songs which poked fun at racists and segregationalists alike, among others. All in all, she produced twenty-one albums while alive and four more were issued posthumously.

Over the years she made a few cameo appearances in films. She appeared in a very ambitious live jazz performance of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream set in nineteenth century New Orleans called Swingin' The Dream. Among her co-stars was Louis Armstrong. This amazing project was sponsored by, and produced at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Love is like playing chess; you have to know which man to move.

There ain't nothin' an ol' man can do but bring me a message from a young one.

When not being outspoken on issues like segregation and feminism, Mabley's humor centered around her love of the opposite sex. Long before Eartha Kitt was hinting about affairs with younger men, Moms Mabley was saying it out loud! She recorded a minor hit that was a non-humorous song praying for peace, entitled "Everything's Gonna Be Alright." She was an avid supporter of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, but shunned Malcolm X and his followers saying that peace and love was the answer to the world's race problems.

She earned the nickname "Moms" for two reasons. She was extremely helpful to and protective of her fellow comics. She also had a habit of calling her audiences her "children."

So far ahead of her time was she, her recordings typically don't sound very dated today. When one listens to the language she used (one joke lasted five minutes and uses the word "fuck" no fewer than twenty times) it's really not at all restrained even by today's standards.

By the end of her lifetime, she'd appeared on television programs hosted by the likes of Harry Belafonte, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Bill Cosby and others.

Moms Mabley died of natural causes on May 23, 1975 in White Plains, New York.



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