Big Mama Thornton Liner Notes
Mon Mar 5 21:35:25 EST 2001
For anyone interested:
Liner Notes from Big Mama Thornton - The Complete Vanguard Recordings
Written by Ed Ward
A warm June evening in 1967 in Monterey, California. It's the Monterey
Pop Festival, and as rock stars like Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones waft
through the crowd and the local police stand around with nothing to do
because the crowd is so well-behaved, the face of American music is being
changed as the hottest acts in the U.S. and England take the stage, one
after another, and show what they can do.
For many, the highlight is when a short, stumpy, not particularly pretty
woman from Port Arthur, Texas, playing in front of a not particularly
skillful band, launches into her last song of the evening. Janis Joplin and
her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, have already won the hearts
of the audience, but she's about to deliver the performance of a lifetime:
she sways, she stomps, she coos, she screams, and, through the lyrics, she
poses a question: why is love like a ball and chain?
It's a song she and the band have been performing for a while: I saw them
do it the previous February at the Avalon Ballroom, and I still have the
performance on tape. I'm glad I do: it was hard enough to believe while it
was happening, and subsequent listens have proven that I was right. It was
magnificent. It's the song which, probably more than any other, has become
associated with the tragic singer, but, like many of the other songs in her
repertoire, it wasn't written by her or by the band. Janis, bless her
heart, acknowledges this, usually by announcing before she performs it that
it was written by Big Mama Willie Mae Thornton. And by raising the songs
profile, Janis has rescued the career of an unjustly-forgotten blues artist
whose career, at the time Janis' was taking off, had all but stopped. She
was probably doubly happy, because, like Janis, she was living in San
Francisco at the time, and was rooting for the young singer.
"Ball and Chain", launched Janis' career and relaunched Big Mama
Thornton's. From this moment until her death in 1984, Willie Mae Thornton
will have work. She'll start to tour again, hitting all the major blues
festivals in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, she'll make records again, and
researchers will go back and rediscover her previous work, just as Janis had
done. They will discover, among other things, that she recorded the original
of "Hound Dog," the song that put Elvis Presley on the map nationally.
Ironically, Willie Mae will outlive Janis by over a decade - ironically,
because for all of Janis Joplin's tough talk, for all of her chemical
indulgence, for all her posturing with her bottle of Southern Comfort, she
wasn't the hard-edged, hard-living blues woman Willie Mae Thornton was.
Willie Mae will be 57 when her hard life catches up to her; Janis will be
27. Willie Mae will even outlive Elvis. Boy, is that ironic: Willie Mae's
favored beverage was gin and milk. Elvis' was Pepsi.
Willie Mae Thornton came into this world on December 11, 1926, in
Montgomery, Alabama. Her father was a preacher; her mother sang gospel in
his church. As one of seven children, growing up poor, she probably wanted
nothing more than to get out. She already knew how to sing, thanks to the
church and her home environment, but as she grew into her teens, rebellion
almost certainly set in. In 1941, barely 14, she won first place in an
amateur contest in Montgomery, and there she was seen by Sammy Green, an
Atlanta-based showman, whose Hot Harlem Revue was one of the descendants of
the old medicine shows, with singers, dancers, and instrumentalists all
doing what was essentially a vaudeville show, traveling from town to town.
He approached the young singer and asked her if she'd like to go on the road
with the Revue, and she never looked back.
Somewhere along the seven-year trail she traveled with the Hot Harlem Revue,
she met a young harmonica player from Memphis, Herman Parker, Jr., better
known as Junior Parker, and he taught her how to play the instrument. A
little later, she taught herself how to play the drums. She had the build
for it: even as a teenager, Willie Mae Thornton was no petite shrinking
violet, and her stature and her temper caused her to got a lot of respect
from her fellow Revue members.
In 1948, Willie Mae decided to go off the road (or perhaps somewhere along
the line the Hot Harlem Revue just went broke and fell apart), and she
settled in Houston, Texas. There were a number of good reasons for doing
this at this time: postwar prosperity was still going strong, since the
shipping industry which had gotten a shot in the arm from the war was
booming. As it had in Los Angeles, the war industry had attracted a lot of
black people from throughout the South because the work was integrated, and
black and white earned equal wages for equal work. This led to a relatively
affluent black community in Houston, and, naturally, this attracted
entrepreneurs like Don Robey, who had been buzzing around the periphery of
the entertainment business there for some time.
Robey had started as the manager of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, a local star
and multi-instrumentalist who was one of the acts he featured in his
nightclub, the Bronze Peacock, on Erastus Street. Brown, at the time, was
recording for Modern, an L.A.-based label, and Robey didn't like the way he
was being treated, so he started his own label, run out of his office at the
club, and called Peacock. With the concentration of talent in Houston, and
the fact that he was the undisputed king of the Houston blues scene, Robey
soon found himself in a good position to scout and record the finest the
area had to offer.
By 1951, although he still hadn't had a hit, he'd signed a number of blues
and gospel acts, and was doing okay locally. One night, after she'd
performed at the Bronze Peacock, Robey asked Willie Mae Thornton if she'd
sign with Peacock Records, and she did. It was a move she'd probably regret
for the rest of her life - after all, why should she be any different than
any of the other artists under Don Robey's iron fist? - but in the short
run, it was just what she needed. Another artist on Peacock was the Los
Angeles-based bandleader Johnny Otis, whose Johnny Otis Revue was a more
modern version of Sammy Greene's, and toured better venues to Otis' fame on
the West Coast and the fact that he acted as sort of a middleman for a lot
of Robey's artists, using his band to back them on their recordings,
recording them in Los Angeles, where the studios were better, and having
access to a large pool of songwriters who were constantly giving him
Two of these songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, were living in the
heavily Jewish district in L.A., writing songs together by night, when
Jerry wasn't working in a record store. They were anxious to get their
songs recorded, so they were constantly pestering Otis with their material.
It took a while, but they got through, and by the time they were 20, they
were on his A-list. "Sometimes Johnny Otis would call us over to his house
to hear some of the singers who worked with him, like Willie Mae Thornton,"
Mike Stoller told me many years later The duo took a shine to her and went
home and wrote her a song.
"Hound Dog" made Willie Mae Thornton's career, and was one of Peacock's
earliest hits. Released in early 1953, it had sold 96,000 copies in two
weeks, Robey claimed, and he had back-orders for 55,000 more. The
combination of Willie Mae's gruff voice and the lyrics putting down a
worthless man "snuffin' round my door" were irresistible to record buyers,
and everybody - Don Robey, Johnny Otis, Willie Mae Thornton, and Leiber and
Stoller, who had to go to register their copyrights with their moms in tow
because they weren't old enough to sign a contract yet - made money.
Well, "money", is relative: of all of them, Willie Mae made the least, only
$500, by her own claim. But she got to tour the country with Johnny Ace,
Peacock's other hot act, and headline rhythm and blues shows around the
country, including Harlem's Apollo Theater. The song was everywhere: there
were four country and western versions available, none of which sold, and
down in Memphis, Sam Phillips, who had started a small blues label called
Sun, grabbed Memphis' most popular black radio personality, the vaudeville
veteran Rufus Thomas, and recorded a parody-cum-answer song, "Bear Cat,"
which was so close to the original that Don Robey sued him and won.
"Hound Dog's" success carried Willie Mae through 1953 clean into 1954: you
could ride a number one record that long in those days, and "Hound Dog" had
been the top of the "Harlem Hit Parade" for weeks. Her touring partner,
Johnny Ace, had had five hits, including two number ones, since they hooked
up, and things were really looking up for both of them. They had a
triumphant homecoming in Houston for a 1954 Christmas show at the Houston
City Auditorium. Just before he was due to go on, there was the crack of a
pistol in Johnny Ace's dressing-room. The singer was known to fool around
with guns, playing Russian roulette, so it wasn't a big surprise to see that
he was lying on the floor, dead from a bullet-wound to his head. Years
later, though, Willie Mae told an interviewer that it wasn't suicide, that
Don Robey had heard that Ace was planning to leave Peacock for a record
company which had offered him a fairer contract and had dispatched a killer
who entered through the bathroom window in the dressing room.
Maybe, maybe not. What's certain, though, is that from this moment, her
career began to falter. Her old harmonica mentor Junior Parker moved to
Houston and signed with Robey, and he, too started to have hits, so she went
out on tour with him, and with another young discovery of Johnny Otis',
Esther Phillips. She remained signed to Peacock until 1957, probably in the
hopes that she'd produce another "Hound Dog," but it never happened. As for
"Hound Dog" itself, it had caught the ear of the country's number one rhythm
and blues fan, a young Memphian named Elvis Presley, when it had been a hit,
and upon his signing to RCA Victor in 1956, he released his own exuberant
and not very similar version of the song. It's worth noting, especially for
those who continue to belabor the claim that Elvis "ripped off" black
artists with his "exact copies" of their work, that his "Hound Dog" not only
doesn't sound much like the original, but it took him over 30 takes in the
studio to whip it into a shape he could deal with, a tribute not only to his
own creative powers, but to Willie Mae Thornton's absolute inability to be
And yes, somewhere along the way here, she recorded "Ball and Chain," a
song which, like so many others recorded by his artists, Don Robey took the
publishing on. It wasn't a hit, except locally, but it is almost certain
that the young folkie and blues enthusiast Janis Joplin, growing up not far
from Houston in Port Arthur, heard the song and it touched her in much the
same way as Erma Franklin's "Piece of My Heart" did, which is to say
personally and down deep.
Rock and roll put Willie Mae Thornton, like so many other blues singers,
on the trash heap, only to rediscover her later after the music had began
once again to acknowledge its roots. Things did not go well for Willie Mae
for many years, though: in the early 1960s, she was a member of an act
called the Cherry Sisters, one of the black bands that made their livings
playing dirty songs at fraternities throughout the country. For double
their usual fee, the Cherry Sisters would play topless. Finally, she'd had
enough of this peripatetic life and moved to San Francisco in the mid '60s,
where a ground swell of interest in blues was taking place. She hooked up
with a tour of Europe, made a couple of albums for Chris Strachwitz'
Arhoolie Records, and played the blues clubs in surrounding communities like
Richmond and Oakland. Then along came Janis, and her name was back on the
streets. Several more recording deals came along, and, although she never
again would sign a contract that she considered as restrictive as the one
she'd had with Robey, she managed to get a number of records out. Among the
labels she flirted with was Vanguard, which is where the recordings on this
set come from. They were done in 1975, starting with "Jail", which may have
been inspired by Johnny Cash's success at San Quentin and several other
live-in-prison recordings, and going on to "Sassy Mama", on which she's
backed by an all-star cast of studio musicians, including the great Texas
guitarist Cornell Dupree. A third album, "Big Mama Swings", which is
arguably the best of the three, was also recorded but never released. In
fact, until plans were made to reissue the first two, the company didn't
even know the tapes were in their archives!
Willie Mae Thornton continued to tour and record pretty much up to her
death. When she died at her sister's house in Los Angeles on July 25, 1984,
a chapter of the blues closed for good. Not just the chapter of "Hound Dog"
and the East Texas sound of Peacock Records, but it's obvious when listening
to her sing that Willie Mae Thornton was the last in a line of female blues
singers that stretches back to Ma Rainey, another rough, tough,
hard-drinking woman, and continues through Bessie Smith, and most
particularly Memphis Minnie, who was the first blues woman to take country
blues to the city and popularize it.
Big Mama Willie Mae Thornton was inducted into the Blues Foundation's
Hall of Fame in 1984, but her legacy lives on. At the moment, there is a
Big Mama Thornton Project being created by the Fund For Women Artists,
which, in the words of its Executive Director Martha Richards, "is dedicated
to increasing the diversity of images of women in theater, film and
television." Roll on, Big Mama!
Ed Ward is the rock historian for NPR's Fresh Air. He lives in Berlin.
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