Mabley was born Loretta Mary Aiken into a large family of twelve children in Brevard, Transylvania County, North Carolina. Her father, James P. Aiken, owned and operated several businesses while her mother, Mary, kept home and took in boarders. Her father died a sudden accidental death when she was eleven. By the age of fifteen Mabley had been raped twice and had two children that were given up for adoption. After being forced by her stepfather to marry a much older man she despised and being encouraged by her grandmother to strike out on her own, she ran away to Cleveland, Ohio with a travelling minstrel show where where she began singing and entertaining.
Learn more about Moms Mabley from wfmu.org.
She took her stage name, Jackie Mabley, from an early boyfriend, commenting to Ebony magazine in a 1970s interview that he'd taken so much from her, it was the least she could do to take his name. Later she became known as "Moms" because she was indeed "Mom" to many other comedians on the circuit in the 1950s and 60s. She was one of the top women doing stand-up in her heyday, and recorded more than 20 albums of comedy routines. She appeared in movies, on television, and in clubs.
Mabley was one of the most successful entertainers of the black vaudeville Chitlin' circuit, earning US$10,000 a week at Harlem's Apollo Theater at the height of her career. She made her New York City debut at Connie's Inn in Harlem.
In the 1960s, she become known to a wider white audience, playing Carnegie Hall in 1962, and making a number of mainstream TV appearances in the 1960s.
Mabley was billed as "The Funniest Woman in the World," and she tackled topics too edgy for many other comics of the time, including racism, and although she was lesbian, one of her regular themes was her romantic interest in handsome young men rather than old, "washed-up geezers", and regularly got away with it courtesy of her on stage persona where she appeared as a toothless, bedraggled woman in a house dress and floppy hat. She added the occasional satirical song to her jokes, and had a minor song hit in the 1960s with a serious plea for peace, "Everythings Gonna Be Alright."
Though she had four children and five grandchildren, Mabley never married and she lived most of her life as a lesbian. Mabley died in White Plains, New York from heart failure and was survived by her children, Bonnie, Christine, Charles, and Yvonne Ailey. She is interred at Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.