Willie Mae Ford (1904 - 1994), also known as Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith, was an American gospel singer.
Born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee as a child. She was raised in the Baptist church and began singing with her sisters, Mary, Geneva, Lucille, and Emma, in a family group known as "The Ford Sisters" after the family moved to St. Louis. The group, and Willie Mae in particular, achieved wider fame after an appearance at the 1922 National Baptist Convention.
Based in St. Louis, Missouri she was one of the early associates of Thomas A. Dorsey and an innovator in gospel style, introducing the "song and sermonette" style that other singers, such as Shirley Caesar and Edna Gallmon Cooke made popular.
She married in 1929 and, shortly after that, began traveling in musical revivals. Dorsey heard her in 1931 and asked to help him found the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, his organization devoted to spreading gospel music by training singers, choirs and composers. Smith became the principal singing teacher for the NCGCC as head of its Soloists' Bureau in 1936. Among her students were Brother Joe May, who gave her the affectionate name "Mother". Teaming with Roberta Martin, Smith demonstrated how to make even familiar hymns such as "Jesus Loves Me" into deeper personal statements by slurs, note bending and other personalized adornments.
Smith was also a major figure within the Baptist Church as the Director of its Education Department of the National Baptist Convention before she became a member of a Pentecostal denomination. She considered herself a preacher and imbued her singing and sermonettes with an evangelical fervor. She was noted for her finesse, control and subtlety, but could also, like her protégé Brother Joe May, belt out hymns.
As generous as she was in teaching others, she also developed a fine sensitivity to slights from others who did not appreciate her firm sincerity or thought she could be cheated. She also developed a rivalry with Sallie Martin that lasted for as long as they lived; the movie Say Amen, Somebody!, filmed when both of them were in their seventies, showed that the fires had only gone down, not out.
She had two natural children, Billie and Jackie, and an adopted daughter who was also her accompanist, Bertha.
Honors and awards
In 1990 Smith was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.