Brother Joe May

Brother Joe May (1912-1972) was billed alternately as “The World’s Greatest Male Gospel Singer” and “Thunderbolt of the Middle West.” Inspired by the blues of Bessie Smith (though he never sang blues himself) and by the gospel of Mahalia Jackson and especially Willie Mae Ford Smith, the Macon, Mississippi–born May possessed a voice of awesome proportions. Whether stretching out on a slow selection without fixed tempo or rocking hard at a brisk clip, he would move effortlessly, often within the space of a phrase, from a quiet whisper or low moan to a terrifying roar that shook church rafters. His command of dynamics and vocal projection were without equal, and he matched them with the animated dramatics of a master showman.

The singer settled in East St. Louis, Illinois with his wife and their two children in 1941 and landed a job as a laborer at the Monsanto Chemicals plant in St. Louis. In 1949, while singing at pioneering gospel songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey’s National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in Los Angeles, he was spotted by J.W. Alexander of the Pilgrim Travelers and brought to the attention of Specialty Records. His first single for the label, “Search Me Lord,” was a hit, and he proved to be the company’s strongest gospel seller until his departure in 1955. From 1958 until his death, May recorded prolifically for Nashboro Records.

“He has the most powerful and dynamic range of any male singer I ever heard, either in person or on record. . .,” Specialty owner Art Rupe said in 1954. “I still get cold chills when I listen to a Joe May record. He’s incomparable, and some day his records will be collected like Caruso and Bessie Smith records.”