Dubbed "The Thunderbolt of the Middle West" by his mentor, the legendary Willie Mae Ford Smith, Brother Joe May was arguably the greatest male soloist in the history of gospel music; a tenor whose dramatic sense of showmanship was surpassed only by his unparalleled command of vocal dynamics and projection, he possessed a voice of unimaginable range and power, moving from a whisper to a scream without the slightest suggestion of effort. May was born in Macon, MS on November 9, 1912; raised in the Church of God denomination -- where all men are called "Brother," hence his stage name -- he began singing at the age of nine, later joining the Little Church Out on the Hills' senior choir. His subsequent tenure as a soloist with the Church of God Quartet solidified his strong reputation throughout the Southern gospel circuit.
After graduating high school, May worked as a day laborer in Macon before he and his family relocated to East St. Louis, IL in 1941, at which time he hired on at a chemical plant. In the St. Louis area he became a protégé of the pioneering Smith, and with her aid honed his sense of phrasing, modeling his own vocal acrobatics on hers; their connection was so strong that May even copied her theatrical performing style. Smith was also the director of the Soloists' Bureau of songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey's National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, at whose conventions May began to build a name for himself throughout the country. During one such convention in Los Angeles in 1949, he came to the attention of Specialty Records talent scout J.W. Alexander, and upon signing to the label, cut his first session later that same year, scoring a major hit with his debut release "Search Me Lord." May's initial success allowed him to quit his day job by 1950, and he began touring the nation, often performing alongside the likes of the Soul Stirrers and the Pilgrim Travelers. With his titanic voice and commanding stage presence, he was often called "the male Mahalia Jackson," a comparison suggested even by Jackson herself. However, despite his popularity -- both "Search Me Lord" and 1950's "Do You Know Him?" were estimated to have sold over one million copies each, making him Specialty's best-selling artist of the period -- May never crossed over to white audiences, the ultimate measure of commercial success at that time. Despite acknowledging Bessie Smith as a major early influence, May also refused to pursue a career as a secular blues singer, and his adamant rejection of all musical traditions but gospel likely played a role in his exit from Specialty in 1958.
Now a free agent, May quickly signed with the Nashboro label, where he also began recording many of his own original compositions. As a result of the Nashville-based company's regional focus, the majority of his subsequent live appearances were scheduled across the Deep South, where his fame continued to grow enormously in the years to follow. An extended stretch of the early '60s also found May starring in the musical Black Nativity in the company of Marion Williams, and after playing Broadway, the production toured the U.S. and Europe. After its run was completed, May returned to the South, where his health began to slowly fail; regardless, he maintained his strenuous touring pace, keeping his declining condition a secret even from family members. Finally, while en route to a performance in Thomasville, GA, May suffered a massive stroke and died on July 14, 1972 at the age of 60. ~ Jason Ankeny