The history of Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith in the gospel field is nearly mythical. Her solos at annual Baptist conventions in the 1930’s suggest that she was a spell binding performer who wrecked church houses coast to coast with her blues-inspired soprano. She was also the inventor of the sermonette. Before her, no artist ever recorded a testimony of spoken dialog within the context of a gospel song. Born June 23, 1904, in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, the seventh in a brood of 14 children, Smith was raised in Memphis before her father, a railroad brakeman moved his family to St. Louis in 1918. Her mother opened a restaurant there where Smith worked after dropping out of school in the eighth grade. Early on, she sang secular music for her own enjoyment, but after she formed the Ford Sisters quartet, she decided to solely sing gospel music.
The Fords debut at the 1922 National Baptist Convention caused a stir with their thrilling rendition of the Negro spiritual “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel”. After basking in their fame for a season, the Ford sisters eventually married and departed the group. At that point, Smith became a soloist.
After marrying a man with a struggling business Smith toured relentlessly to help support the household. A chance meeting with influential gospel songwriter Thomas Dorsey in 1932 led her to co-found the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. She later presided over the St. Louis Chapter.
In 1939, Smith joined the Church of God Apostolic where she began to influence the music department in the same manner that she had with the Baptist Convention. She did not record herself until 1950’s more than 20 years after some of her legendary church performances. Her best known song was “If You Just Keep Still”.
Smith was featured in the documentary film “Say Amen, Somebody”, which traced the history of gospel music and brought Smith some much deserved media attention. The accolade won her the Heritage award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1988. Smith died on February 2, 1994, at the age of 89.