BIG MAMA THORNTON: STRONGER THAN DIRT (1969)
1) Born Under A Bad Sign; 2) Hound Dog; 3) Ball And Chain; 4) Summertime; 5) Rollin' Stone; 6) Let's Go Get Stoned; 7) Funky Broadway; 8) That Lucky Old Sun; 9) Ain't Nothin' You Can Do; 10) I Shall Be Released.
As far as I was able to dig it out, Big Mama recorded her original version of 'Ball 'n' Chain', with Edward «Bee» Houston on electric guitar in vintage Chicago-style, as late as January 1968 — curious, considering that, as we all know, fellow Texan and big Willie Mae fan Janis Joplin was already singing the song live as early as 1967 (Monterey Pop, etc.). Unless I'm missing some crucial facts, Janis must have caught Big Mama in a live performance. Regardless, Janis' megastardom in 1967, in the usual manner, brought its bit of recognition to those artists that were at least partially responsible for that stardom, and that meant new opportunities for Willie Mae, too.
Stronger Than Dirt, released by Arhoolie in 1969, is a fun, but not very successful, attempt to make use of these opportunities. A hodge-podge of oldies and contemporary songs set to a «modernistic big band sound», the album is just as eclectic as the late Sixties usually required — a little blues, a little boogie, a little R'n'B, a little soul, and the song selection is calculated so meticulously you'd think they hired a professional astronomer to do that. 'Ball And Chain' is re-recorded for the session, since Janis had already showed how to make it into a selling hit; and since Janis had the power, it was only too natural to pass the ball back and, in Janis' own steps this time, cover 'Summertime'.
'Born Under A Bad Sign' — a hit for Albert King, then popularized among white audiences by Cream. 'Funky Broadway' — Wilson Pickett had been really hot with that one not more than one year ago. 'Let's Go Get Stoned'... odd choice for a straight working black gal from the heart of Texas, but who cares? She even tries on a little Bob Dylan, because, well, you weren't really supposed to be a solid commercial proposition in those days unless you tried on a little Bob Dylan. (Of course, you could be exempt if your name sounded anything like Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger, but that was obviously not the case here).
The results are mixed and, overall, sort of pathetic. In 1969, Willie Mae was as powerful a singer as she'd been twenty years earlier, but she was every bit as unsuited to varying the original formula. Case in point — the nightmare-awful rendition of 'I Shall Be Released', a song that dies on the spot and slowly decays in a cloud of heavy stinking once it is deprived of subtlety; Big Mama, as is her custom, charges through the tune like a brave cavalry regiment, and one in which every single soldier and every single horse have just had ample access to the local pub as well. 'Born Under A Bad Sign' is brawny, but also thoroughly flushed of its doom-laden atmosphere — with the elimination of the song's original monster riff (that Cream, by the way, took great care to preserve and build upon), it retains plenty of volume but loses most of the «presence». For 'Summertime', Willie Mae tries to preserve the atmosphere of poorly hidden depression and sarcasm that Janis gave the song, but, again, lacks the appropriate finesse. And so on. Finally, why in the world would we need yet another re-recording of 'Hound Dog'?
It is quite telling that not a single one of these numbers (except for 'Hound Dog' and 'Ball And Chain', of course) became a live staple for Big Mama, as the next year's live album would soon demonstrate — unlike the awesome repertoire displayed on her 1966 recordings. It is still interesting to listen through it at least once, for instructive purposes: to understand what an artist's artistic limitations may look like, in the flesh (since, under normal conditions, artists tend to hide these limitations rather than flaunt them in our face) — and, perhaps, to gain a better appreciation for the original songs, in a comparative perspective. But other than that, it's a flip-floppy thumbs down all the way.