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Rhythm Revue Spotlight celebrates birthdays of James Brown, Big Maybelle, Stevie Wonder and other soul greats

Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder

Here are some soul birthdays for the month of May:

Mabel Louise Smith or Big Maybelle, as she was known, was born May 1, 1924 in Jackson, Tennessee. One of the original rhythm and blues singers, she made her recording debut in 1944. Her most successful run was with Newark-based Savoy Records, where she recorded her immortal hit, “Candy.” Big Maybelle died in 1972.


James Brown was born May 3, 1933, in Barnwell, South Carolina. One of the most important R&B musicians of all time, James Brown made his first records with the vocal group the Famous Flames in 1955. James Brown revolutionized R&B with his advanced, sophisticated funk. He was known as the Godfather of Soul.

Please, Please, Please

Chicago-based soul singer Tyrone Davis was born May 4, 1938, in Greenville, Mississippi. Early in his career, he was a valet for blues guitarist Freddie King. He started recording as a young teenager, but didn't have hits until 1969 with “Can I Change My Mind” and “Turn Back the Hands of Time.”

Turn Back The Hands Of Time

Johnnie Taylor was born May 5, 1937, in Crawfordsville, Arkansas. He started his recording career as a gospel singer with the Highway QCs, a group founded by Sam Cooke. Johnnie Taylor's earliest rhythm and blues recordings were supervised and produced by Sam Cooke. After switching to Stax, Johnnie Taylor became a major R&B star. Johnnie Taylor's 1976 Columbia hit, “Disco Lady,” was the first platinum single ever awarded. Johnnie Taylor died in May of 2000.

Disco Lady

Jimmy Ruffin was born May 7, 1939. He was the older brother of David Ruffin, lead singer with the Temptations in the mid-60s. Jimmy's best known for his 1966 Motown classic, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.”

Jimmy Ruffin - What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted (Official Audio)

Philip Bailey was born May 8, 1951, in Denver. He joined the group Earth, Wind & Fire in the early 70s. Philip Bailey's distinctive falsetto lead vocals helped define the band's sound.

Earth, Wind & Fire - Reasons (Official Video)

Mary Wells was born May 13, 1943, in Detroit. Mary Wells became Motown's first major female hitmaker. Her earliest recordings were written and produced by Smokey Robinson. Mary Wells is best known for her 1964 classic, “My Guy.” Mary Wells died in 1992. She was only 49.

Mary Wells - My Guy (Official Audio)

Another Motown star was born May 13 in the year 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan. His name at birth was Stevland Hardaway Judkins. Stevie Wonder's contributions to R&B are too numerous to mention here, but he is a major figure in American music. He started making records as an 11-year-old and had his first hit at age 12 with “Fingertips.” Stevie Wonder went on to record dozens of albums for Motown. Many consider Songs in the Key of Life to be his best.

Isn't She Lovely

Check in next time for more May birthdays!

Listen to the segment, above.

Additional recommended tracks:

“Oh Lord What Are You Doing to Me” by Big Maybelle
“In the Mood” by Tyrone Davis
“I Believe in You (You Believe in Me)” by Johnnie Taylor
“Never, Never Leave Me” by Mary Wells
“Creepin'” by Stevie Wonder


Felix Hernandez started his career as a producer and radio journalist while in college. In the 1980’s, Felix independently produced the award-winning radio series BluesStage, which had a 6 year run on over 200 NPR stations. He also worked extensively as a journalist with WBEZ in Chicago, and NPR.