At one time the most successful woman standup comic in America -- she remains the highest-charting comedienne in Billboard history -- social satirist Jackie "Moms" Mabley is largely unknown to contemporary audiences, but her impact on successive generations of both female and African-American comics remains estimable. Born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, NC on March 19, 1894, her early life was marred by tragedy -- one of a dozen children, when she was 11 her father, a volunteer fire fighter, was killed when his fire truck overturned and exploded, and her mother was later fatally struck by a mail truck. Before the age of 13, Aiken was also raped twice -- once by an older black man, then by Brevard's white sheriff; both violations resulted in pregnancy, and she ultimately left her children in her grandmother's care and relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, living with a minister's family. There she began singing and dancing in local shows, befriending local entertainers including Jack Mabley, who became her boyfriend; their relationship proved ill-fated, and when Aiken's brother expressed embarrassment over his sister's stage career, she adopted Mabley's name for her own: "He took a lot off me," she told Ebony in 1974, "so the least I could do was take his name."
The newly christened Jackie Mabley -- the sobriquet "Moms" was later bestowed as a nod to her maternal understanding and compassion for younger performers -- was soon touring vaudeville on the so-called "chitlin' circuit" of African-American venues; the cancerous racism she encountered on the road would later inform her standup comedy. In 1921 she began touring with the husband-and-wife team Butterbeans & Susie, soon making her debut at Harlem's legendary Cotton Club; Mabley was also a fixture of New York City's emerging black theater, and in 1931 collaborated with writer Zora Neale Hurston on the Broadway production Fast and Furious: A Colored Revue in 37 Scenes. Two years later, she made her film debut in Emperor Jones. But it was Mabley's forays into comedy that proved most enduring -- appearing on-stage in house dresses and oversized hats (a wardrobe inspired by her own grandmother), her matronly image belied her saucy routines, which were laden with sexual innuendo as well as cutting observations on the state of race relations in the U.S. As several observers pointed out, her no-frills, little-old-lady appearance not only endeared Mabley to fans, but made it that much easier for audiences of all races to swallow her more biting material -- even few male comedians of the time were as pointedly topical or as salacious, and most of them were white on top of it.
From 1939 into the '60s, Moms Mabley was a fixture at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater, appearing on its stage more than any other performer; in 1947, she co-starred in the film Killer Diller, followed a year later by Boarding House Blues. But her national fame didn't truly ascend until she began cutting comedy LPs on the Chess label -- her 1960 debut On Stage (Funniest Woman in the World) went gold, and the follow-up Moms Mabley at the "UN" cracked the Billboard Top 20. Subsequent chart entries include Moms Mabley at the Playboy Club, Young Men, Si - Old Men, No, Moms Mabley at the White House and Moms Mabley Breaks It Up. She made her television debut in 1967 on A Time for Laughter, and was later a regular guest on the television variety shows of Harry Belafonte, Mike Douglas, and Merv Griffin. In 1969, Mabley unexpectedly cracked the pop and R&B charts with a straight-faced, even maudlin rendition of the Dion hit "Abraham, Martin and John." After starring in the 1974 film Amazing Grace -- her first big-screen appearance in over a quarter century -- Mabley died May 23, 1975 at the age of 78. In the years following her death, she has been the subject of a number of off-Broadway productions, including the Clarice Taylor-headlined Moms and 1999's Moms Mabley: The Naked Truth. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi