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Monday, June 20, 2011

Big Mama Thornton: They Called Me Big Mama


1) All Right Baby; 2) Bad Luck Got My Man; 3) Partnership Blues; 4) Mischievous Boogie; 5) I'm All Fed Up; 6) Cotton Picking Blues; 7) Everytime I Think Of You; 8) No Jody For Me; 9) Let Your Tears Fall Baby; 10) They Call Me Big Mama; 11) Walking Blues; 12) Hound Dog; 13) Just Can't Help Myself; 14) Nightmare; 15) Rockabye Baby; 16) Hard Times; 17) I've Searched The World Over; 18) I Ain't No Fool Either; 19) The Big Change; 20) I Smell A Rat; 21) Yes Baby; 22) Willie Mae's Blues; 23) Stop Hoppin' On Me.

Houston-based Peacock Records was never the hottest place in the musical business, lasting just a little over twenty years before merging with ABC and then later with MCA. This, most likely, ex­plains why they never managed to make a real big star out of Big Mama Thornton. Had she the chance to be picked up by someone like Atlantic, she would unquestionably have been the bulgiest, brawniest, bulliest boss mama out there — Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker would have never stood the field.

As it happened, her records never got enough promotion, and, in fact, there weren't all that many records either — all through the Fifties, she only managed to cut less than two dozen 45s and not a single LP (available discographies do not even list any compilations). The musical arrange­ments were professional, but somewhat outdated — most of her slow ballad numbers are done with a lounge jazz tinge, and the fast rockers are seriously on the 1940s jump blues side — and, although on most of these recordings she is backed by a fairly serious outfit (the Johnny Otis Band, with Johnny himself manning the vibraphones), I simply do not believe that Johnny's big band style could ever be the perfect environment for Willie Mae Thornton.

This compilation, released by Proper Records, is definitely the ideal guide through Mama's early years; it seems to omit very little, presents all the recordings in chronological order, and features excellent liner notes for each track. If anyone knows anything at all, he/she is bound to have at least heard of one song here — the original recording of Leiber-Stoller's 'Hound Dog' (which, ac­cording to the liner notes, Mama tried to pass for her own composition, but nobody messes aro­und with two smart Jewish kids, not even a big fat Afro-American woman) which, in my humble opinion, is way superior to the Elvis version, if only for the fact that it does not repeat the exact same two verses over and over again. (Now if only Mama could have gotten ahold of Scotty Moore in time...).

There is more to that, however: Big Mama was a great actor, an exciting character impersonation, and, coming from an old tradition of strong woman singers castigating their wimpy men for not living up to their standards, she now adds post-war spunk and fury to Bessie Smith's pre-war re­straint on numbers such as 'I Ain't No Fool Either' and 'I Smell A Rat' (the latter, also from Leiber and Stoller, is as worthy a companion to 'Hound Dog' as could have ever been desired). But her talents do not stop at aggressive belting: she is also fantastic at loud, prayerish blues howling ('Cot­ton Picking Blues', 'Walking Blues', 'Hard Times', 'I've Searched The World Over', etc.).

One style that does not fit her at all is romantic jazz: 'Just Can't Help Myself', a sort of crippled, easily recognizable reworking of 'Blue Moon', goes absolutely nowhere — you'd get more pro­mising results out of Ozzy Osbourne singing Wagner arias: Big Mama just wasn't all that know­ledgeable about subtle and tender aspects of romance, I'm afraid. Fortunately, there's only about one or two tracks like this altogether on the album, and it's a good thing 'Just Can't Help Myself' is immediately followed by 'Nightmare' (Leiber-Stoller strike again!), a mildly creepy duet be­tween Big Mama and Johnny Otis' vibraphone that sets things straight again — Big Mama's man finally dumped her (hell, anybody would after hearing her express her romantic feelings on 'Just Can't Help Myself'), and she is hurting as hell, and it works.

If you can live with the fact that all of these twenty three songs are really just five or six (remem­ber, this is still the pre-rock'n'roll era, and even Leiber and Stoller, who did so much to diversify the world of primitive pop music, were still in their teens when writing 'Hound Dog'), They Called Me Big Mama (named, by the way, after Willie Mae's bit of brave self-irony: "they call me Big Mama, cuz I weigh three hundred pounds") is a tight ball of energy and fun, and you will even discern the apparent influence on a fellow Texan — Janis, whose debt to Big Mama would not be paid off until more than a decade later. Of all Fifties' artists, Etta James was probably the only one comparable — and even Etta never had Leiber and Stoller working for her.


  1. Actually I believe 'Yes Baby' is a duet with Johnny Ace, the guy who did 'Pledging My Love' and then accidentally shot himself.

    Great stuff this, I've had this comp for some time, and I'll be interested to see how her later stuff measures up.

    Oh yes, I take it you won't be covering Big Jay McNeely? Oh well, I guess we have to get somewhere, and he wasn't probably all that important.

  2. Yes, of course. I misread the notes.

    Never even heard of Big Jay McNeely until now. My bad. Anyway, will soon be moving from the "Big" category into the "Blind" one. That's gotta be fun.

  3. So who's your favourite, Blake, Boy Fuller, Lemon Jefferson, Roosevelt Graves, Willie Johnson or Willie McTell? I know the Reverend Gary Davis recorded under the moniker too.

    But first, Billie Holiday! She could take up anything between 3 weeks and half a year, depending on how up close and personal you wanna get.
    Of course, Billie is one gal I really don't see how anyone can successfully review. I'm sure you know what I mean.

  4. I echo Billie Holiday. 'These Foolish Things', 'God Bless the Child', 'I'm a Fool to Want You', many great stuff. Her vocal deterioration only helps to make her later works more interesting.