Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You
What I remember is the record albums. Not hearing them, seeing them. The parents of several of my friends had these “forbidden” albums, mostly by two women: Moms Mabley and Rusty Warren, famous for the song and album Knockers Up! (And I just discovered that Rusty is still alive and kicking at age eighty-five, with a Facebook page and everything!) There may have been some male comics in there, too, but I can’t recall them. But Rusty stood out because we all knew what knockers were, even if the cover did show a guy with xylophone sticks in his hand. And Moms stood out, of course, because she was usually the only black face in the whole record collection. (Maybe a Nat King Cole or two, and possibly Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, by Ray Charles.) Anyway, we were not allowed to listen to this stuff because it was too raunchy for our young ears. To this day I have never heard the records of either of these pioneering female funny women.
Whoopi Goldberg was one of the next generation who was completely floored by Jackie “Moms” Mabley, and she directed this homage to the lady. Sadly, there is a dearth of film or tape of her. She had been a huge presence in black entertainment, places like the Apollo in Harlem, for many years, but she was only arriving in the larger, white consciousness just as she was about to shuffle off the stage of life. But she did appear on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Playboy After Dark, along with Sammy Davis, Jr., looking as out of place as it was possible for a human being to look in that self-conscious assembly of hipsters. Actually, maybe I should reverse that. It was the hipsters who looked a little at sea, doing their awkward white-people head-bobbing as she sang “Abraham, Martin, and John.” Moms was just fine with it. She looked like she could be at home anywhere, with her knitted cap, toothless mouth, and strange dresses.
So now at last I’ve heard some of her stuff, and it’s good stuff. Sometimes you have to remind yourself just how ground-breaking it was back in the day, but there is no shortage of interviewees to tell you just how hard this woman hit them when they were growing up, white and black alike. We hear from Bill Cosby (before the scandal), Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Debbie Allen, Kaye Ballard, Dick Cavett, Stiller and Meara, Arsenio Hall, Quincy Jones, and Robert Klein, among others. And I see there is a wealth of her recordings at YouTube. Maybe it’s time to sample them.