Sun 14 Dec 2014
|Big Mama Thornton||Cotton Picking Blues||The Complete 1950 1961|
|Big Mama Thornton||I Smell A Rat||Hound Dog: The Peacock Recordings|
|Big Mama Thornton||Rock-A-Bye Baby||Hound Dog: The Peacock Recordings|
|Big Mama Thornton||Yes, Baby||Hound Dog: The Peacock Recordings|
|Big Mama Thornton||Hound Dog||Hound Dog: The Peacock Recordings|
|Big Mama Thornton||My Story||The Complete 1950 1961|
|Big Mama Thornton||Stop Hoppin' On Me||Hound Dog: The Peacock Recordings|
|Big Mama Thornton||They Call Me Big Mama||The Complete 1950 1961|
|Big Mama Thornton||One More River||Saved|
|Big Mama Thornton||Big Mama's Coming Home||The Complete 1950-1961|
|Big Mama Thornton||Life Goes On||All Night Long They Played The Blues|
|Big Mama Thornton||Ball N' Chain||Ball And Chain|
|Big Mama Thornton||Little Red Rooster||Live In Europe|
|Big Mama Thornton||My Heavy Load||Ball And Chain|
|Big Mama Thornton||Session Blues||In Europe|
|Big Mama Thornton||I'm Feeling Alright||With The Muddy Waters Blues Band)|
|Big Mama Thornton||Looking The World Over||In Europe|
|Big Mama Thornton||Everybody's Happy But Me||Sassy Mama!|
|Big Mama Thornton||Jail||Jail|
|Big Mama Thornton||That Lucky Old Sun||Live At Ann Arbor 1970|
|Big Mama Thornton||Unlucky Girl||Ball And Chain|
|Big Mama Thornton||Rock Me||Gunsmoke Blues|
Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton is probably best remembered for two songs that became huge for Elvis and later Janis Joplin. "Hound Dog" held down the top slot on Billboard's R&B charts for seven weeks in 1953 and Elvis had an even bigger hit with it in 1956. Joplin covered "Ball and Chain" on her debut album which became a million seller. Thornton moved to Houston where she signed with Don Robey's cutting some terrific sides but no hits to match "Hound Dog." After Houston she settled in California where she cut a few singles and struggled playing small club dates. After new management she began to play festivals including the American Folk Blues Festival and cut some fine albums for Arhoolie. She cutting records for Mercury and Vanguard through the 70's and touring up until her death in 1984. Today we feature Big Mama's music and hear my interview with Michael Spörke who has written the biography Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music.
As Spörke writes: "Willie Mae moved in the house of relatives in Barbour County Alabama, and found herself a job washing and cleaning spittoons in the local tavern. One night the tavern's regular;r vocalist go drunk so Willie Mae convinced the tavern owner that she could do the job. She never looked back after that." As she related to writer Ralph Gleason: "I like my own old down home singing, with the feeling.I learned to sing blues by myself. …My singing comes from experience, my own feeling. I got my own feeling for everything. I never had no one teach me nothing. I never went to school for music or nothing. I stayed home to take care of my mother who was sick. I taught myself to sing and to blow harmonica and even to play the drums by watching other people. I can't read music but I know where I'm singing! If I hear a blues I like, I try to sing it in my own way. It's always best to have something of your own. I don't sing like nobody but myself." Her big break came through singer Diamond Teeth Mary who met Willie Mae when she was working on a garbage truck and happened to hear her singing. Mary told her about a singing contest for Sammy Greens Hot Harlem Revue. At fourteen years old, she won the contest and began traveling with the Revue.
Thornton’s career began to take off when she moved to Houston in 1948.She made her debut in 1950 cutting "All Right Baby b/w Bad Luck Got My Man" for the tiny E&W label on Houston's Dallas Avenue. She signed a a five year recording contract with Don Robey's Peacock Records in 1951. Thornton played at Robey's Bronze Peacock club and toured the Chitlin' Circuit. Thornton cut some solid records before "Hound Dog", such as "Cotton picking Blues" and "Let Your Tears Fall Baby" but nothing hit the charts. Robey negotiated a deal with Johnny Otis in which he would take some of Robey's artists on tour with the revue and that he would also record them. Sh was apparently a big hits as the Chicago Defender proclaimed that Thornton "stopped the show in the Tacoma, Oakland and Richmond auditoriums, as well as in Stockton, Sacramento, Bakersfield and the Elks Auditorium in Los Angeles." While on tour with Otis she cut "Hound Dog." The son was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller especially for Thornton. Otis brought Leiber and Stoller to see her to see if they could come up with something for her. As Stoller recalled: "we saw Big mama and she knocked me cold. she looked like the biggest, bad-ass, saltiest chick you would ever see. And she was mean, a 'lady bear' as they used to call 'em. She must have been 350 pounds and she had all these scars all over her face. I had to write a song for her that basically said 'Go fuck yourself' but how do you do it without actually saying it? ..She was a wonderful blues singer with a great moaning style, but it was as much her appearance as her blues style that influenced the writing of Hound Dog." The song went to number one on the R&B charts and was the biggest record Peacock ever had.
Unable to follow the success of "Hound Dog" she left peacock in 1957 and relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, playing clubs in San Francisco and L.A. but not recording again until 1961. In 1961 she waxed 45's for Irma and Bay Tone. During the latter session she cut "Ball and Chain" but was not released. Her fortunes took an upswing with new manager Jimmy Moore and "the big festivals and shows came back into Big Mama Thornton's life…" Her first big festival shows the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival which she would play again in 1966 and 1968. In 1965, she toured with the American Folk Blues Festival package in Europe. As Spörke writes: "Big Mama was always put on at the end of each show. She was the highlight." During the festival she got the chance to record an album for Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie label. Big Mama In Europe featured an all-star backing band that included Buddy guy, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Walter Horton, Eddie Boyd and others.
Back in the States after her European tour she cut a few singles for Sotoplay, Kent and the terrific "Life Goes On" for Galaxy. In 1966 she cut her second album for Arhoolie, Big Mama Thornton Vol. 2: The Queen at Monterey with the Chicago Blues Band. The album found her backed by a crack Muddy Waters band that included James Cotton, Sammy Lawhorn and Otis Spann among others. 1968 saw the release of the album Ball and Chain on Arhoolie.
While the black audience was turning away from the blues there was a growing appreciation for blues and roots music among white audiences that would benefit Thornton greatly. Between 1966 and 1969 she was in great demand in campuses, clubs, folk festivals and rock festivals. She played in places like the Fillmore and the Ash Grove, sharing the stage with rock bands like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. It was during this period she met Janis Joplin and members of Big Brother & the Holding Company. It was at a club that they heard her perform "Ball and Chain." As Joplin said " she sings the blues with such heart and soul. I have learned so much from her and only wish I could sing as well as Willie Mae." Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company's performance of "Ball 'n' Chain" at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and release of the song on their number one album Cheap Thrills renewed interest in Thornton's career and was the song that made Joplin famous.
|Big Mama Thornton at the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival
By 1969, she signed with Mercury Records. Mercury released her most successful album, Stronger Than Dirt, which reached number 198 in the Billboard Top 200 record chart. Thornton then signed a contract with Pentagram cutting a gospel album called Saved. Thornton's last albums were Jail and Sassy Mama for Vanguard Records in 1975. Thornton never stopped touring until her passing in 1984, including a return to Europe on 1972. As Spörke writes: "The newspapers, for the most part, wrote that she was found dead, alone in a boarding house, but her friends say that this is not the truth. It seems more realistic that she had gathered together her old buddies one last time on July 25, 1984. Around six in the evening, rumor has it, she phoned her sister Mattie. She sang for her, her favorite song, 'That Lucky Old Sun.' Then she went to the sofa, drank some gin and milk, fell to sleep and never got up." As Johnny Otis said at her funeral: "Don't waste your sorrow on Big Mama. She's free. Don't fell sorry for Big mama. There's no more pain. No more suffering in a society where the color of skin was more important than the quality of your talent."