Henderson County, Kentucky Biography

Mary Ann Fisher

Film to cover life of local native, noted blues singer
By Donna B. Stinnett

Some people knew her as the "Songbird of the South."  Others as a vocalist with the legendary Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, B.B. King and others.

And there were some here in Henderson County who knew her as sister, cousin, aunt, friend. Mary Ann FISHER, born in Henderson County, was a rhythm and blues singer who continued performing nearly until the day she died last year in Louisville at age 81.

On Monday night, a documentary that tells her story will be premiered at the Comedy Caravan in Louisville.

"She tells the story of her life.  You hear it from her own mouth," said Leslie GRAHAM of Louisville, who began working on the documentary several months before FISHER died.  "It took a long time to get it done, but the truth is getting ready to be told.  I'm just sorry she didn't get to see it."

She was eager to talk about her life, GRAHAM said, because she had a sense  that she wasn't being portrayed accurately in the feature film "Ray," which came out last fall after both FISHER and CHARLES died.  She had previously been misrepresented, he said, in biographies by CHARLES, Marvin GAYE and Little Jimmy SCOTT.

"When I asked her about doing a documentary, she immediately said 'yes,' " said GRAHAM, who only knew FISHER by name and reputation until he started working on the film.  A mutual friend introduced them.

"She said she was getting tired of being put in books portrayed in a different way," he recalls.  "She said 'I'm not the person people think I am.'"

"I said 'Let me get it on film,' " GRAHAM relates. Her childhood was hardly an easy one, and GRAHAM said she talks about that in the documentary.

"She had eight brothers and sisters and they lived in a shot-gun house in Henderson," GRAHAM said.  "Her father got killed (reportedly over a watch lost in a poker game when FISHER was age 4) and her mother couldn't keep them all."

The children were parceled out, some with relatives and some to Miss Bessie ALLEN'S orphanage (Kentucky Home Society for Colored Children) in Louisville, including FISHER.

Her musical career began in the 1940s when she entered talent contests at Louisville's old Lyric Theatre and the convention center, which later became Louisville Gardens.  She won several contests, developed her act and was soon the headliner at the old Orchid Bar downtown.

She was 32 and working as a dishwasher in 1955 when she met CHARLES at the USO club at Fort Knox, according to one account.  She toured with him from 1955 until 1958.

Later, she became a solo act and often performed in revues with such legends as B.B. KING, James BROWN, Jackie WILSON, Percy MAYFIELD, Bobby BLAND and many others.

She returned to Louisville in 1967.  She worked various jobs while continuing to perform.

She was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and was a regular participant in Kentucky Folklife music stages.  There is an exhibit dedicated to her at the Kentucky Music Museum in Renfro Valley.  She was a recipient of the Sylvester Weaver Award of the Kentuckiana Blues Society.

GRAHAM said he felt at home with FISHER from the start. "When I first met her, the woman was so nice to me, it's crazy.  I called her 'Miss FISHER' and she said 'don't call me that, call me Mary Ann.  It makes me feel old,' " he recalls.  "She acted crazy with everyone else, cracking jokes.  She didn't act her age.  She sounded like a little girl when she answered the phone."

GRAHAM said he hopes media outlets such as Kentucky Educational Television and even The History Channel and BET will become interested in the FISHER documentary.  He would like to see the film shown sometime in Henderson, where FISHER still has several relatives and where she came to her final resting place.

"It's our history," GRAHAM said, "and it needs to be passed along.  Kids, black and white, can see it and be inspired.  It makes somebody say, 'I'm not going to give up on my dreams.  I'm going to go do it. ' "

The Gleaner, Henderson, Kentucky
Sunday, February 27, 2005

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005HCH&GS