Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton - vocals, harmonica; Samuel Lawhorn - guitar; Pinetop Perkins - piano; Curtis Tillman - bass; Eddie Horton - drums
Bridging the gap between seminal originators like Bessie Smith and later-era blues divas like Koko Taylor, Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton enjoyed a long illustrious career spanning four decades. Blessed with a powerfully pure and melodious voice and an equally strong personality, Thornton would have a profound influence that stretched far beyond the blues community. A self-taught drummer, harmonica player and songwriter, Thornton was that rare triple threat who could play, sing and write, and whose talents became a magnet for many of the greatest blues musicians of the era. The likes of Muddy Waters and his band, Lightnin' Hopkins and Buddy Guy all served to enhance the music of Big Mama Thornton, both in the studio and on stage. Her recordings and the blues phraseology of her singing style, which could be strong and sexy one minute and unequivocally delicate the next, would inspire nearly everyone that encountered her music, from the greatest of her black contemporaries, like the aforementioned Muddy Waters and Lightnin' Hopkins, to subsequent generations of white superstars like Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin.
Born in rural Alabama in 1926, Thornton's introduction to music began like many of her peers', in the Southern Baptist church, where her father was a minister and her mother a singer. Following her mother's death in 1941, the 14 year-old began a seven-year tenure with Sammy Green's Georgia-based show, The Hot Harlem Revue. Often promoted as the "New Bessie Smith," Thornton sang her way throughout the southeastern United States, absorbing the influences of seminal blues singers like Smith, Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie and Junior Parker, while gaining valuable singing and stage experience.
In 1948, Thornton relocated to Houston, Texas. Three years later she began her recording career, signing with the Houston-based Peacock Records in 1951, a label specializing in gritty rhythm and blues and gospel recordings that would have a significant influence on soul and rock & roll music in the decades to follow. The following year (1952), Thornton joined labelmate and bandleader Johnny Otis' traveling revue and played at New York City's famed Apollo Theatre, where she began as the opening act for R&B artists Esther Phillips and Mel Walker. Her undeniable charisma and vocal prowess soon had her advancing to headliner status and it was during this stint that she first earned the nickname "Big Mama."
At a Los Angeles recording session that August, Thornton first encountered the young songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who encouraged her to record a new 12-bar blues vocal they had written, called "Hound Dog." The single, despite being laden with sexual references, double entendres and exuberant whoops and barks (backed with Thornton's equally provocative original, "They Call Me Big Mama," on the B-side), became a smash hit the following year, selling nearly two million copies and topping the R&B charts. One of the most obvious and notorious examples of the financial inequity that often existed between black and white performers, Thornton would earn a lifetime total of a mere $500 for her recording, while Elvis Presley's version recorded three years later and revised for a mainstream audience, brought him international fame and considerably greater financial reward.
During the 1960s, Thornton relocated to San Francisco and remained a popular fixture on the club circuit and by the middle of the decade began a second resurgence. In 1966, Thornton recorded Big Mama Thornton With The Muddy Waters Blues Band, which featured Sammy Lawhorn and Muddy Waters himself as her guitarists. Two years later she would record the equally exciting Ball 'n' Chain album, this time with Lightnin' Hopkins serving as her guitar player. Both of these albums would have a profound influence, especially in San Francisco, where they would be embraced as strongly as those by Muddy Waters himself and the early Butterfield Blues Band, becoming part of the sonic blueprint for the San Francisco sound.
George Wein, the impresario behind the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival (which began in 1954 and 1959, respectively) is renowned for showcasing younger, older and rediscovered jazz, blues and folk musicians alike. His vision also included adding complimentary elements to the festivals, which presented figures from the regular Newport Festival programs participating in educational workshops, often held under tents on the festival grounds. Following Big Mama Thornton's July 18, 1969 performance on the Newport Festival main stage, she and her band performed again the following afternoon as part of a more intimate Black Roots Workshop also held on the festival grounds.
This previously unheard Big Mama Thornton performance is unfortunately not recorded well. Despite the considerable technical issues, the recording does capture Thornton at a peak moment, with a band comprised of an incredible roster of blues musicians, all notable for their contributions to important Chess Studios recordings. Guitarist Sammy Lawhorn and pianist Pinetop Perkins are both on board, not to mention the formidable rhythm section of Curtis Tillman and Eddie Horton. The group is best heard on their warm-up instrumental, as following this, only Thornton's vocal and harmonica are clearly heard in the tape mix, with the band audible only as leakage into her vocal microphone. Still, this recording conveys Thornton's formidable skills on harmonica and the powerfully pure tone of her vocals as she works her way through an intimidating "Watermelon Man" and the deep sway of "Rock Me Baby."
-Written by Alan Bershaw