Happy Heavenly Birthday: Willie Mae Ford Smith June 23, 1904 – February 2, 1994
Willie Mae Ford Smith (June 23, 1904 – February 2, 1994) was an American musician and Christian evangelist instrumental in the development and spread of gospel music in the United States.
She grew up singing with her family, joining a quartet with her sisters. Later she became acquainted with Thomas A. Dorsey, the "Father of Gospel Music", when he co-founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in 1932. Smith started the St. Louis chapter and became the director of the national organization's Soloist's Bureau, training up and coming singers in the gospel blues style.
She became known for her nurturing temperament, leading to her commonly being called "Mother Smith" by those within her musical circle. For a decade she traveled ceaselessly tutoring, singing, and preaching in churches and at revivals. Her appearances were renowned for being intensely moving spiritual experiences.
A devout Christian, she rejected commercializing gospel music throughout her life, even during gospel's "golden age". Smith chose to perform live and on the radio rather than record. She was ordained as a minister and preached at a church in St. Louis, Missouri for 30 years. However, not until the 1980s did she become known to mainstream audiences. She was the primary focus of the 1982 documentary film Say Amen, Somebody, about gospel singers in the U.S. Author Anthony Heilbut states, "her admirers and protégés are legion. This is simply the most influential female gospel singer of all time, and in the opinion of many, many fans, the greatest."