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Monday, July 25, 2011

Big Mama Thornton: The Way It Is


1) Little Red Rooster; 2) One Black Rat; 3) Rock Me Baby; 4) Wade In The Water; 5) Sweet Little Angel; 6) Baby Please / Mojo Workin'; 7) Watermelon Man; 8) Don't Need No Doctor.

Now here is an album title that actually matches the contents. Recorded at some L.A. club with Big Mama's then-current touring band (including Eddie "Bee" Houston on guitar, George "Har­monica" Smith on, oddly enough, harmonica, Flip "They Forgot To Stroke My Ego With A Nick" Graham on bass, and J. D. "Not Jack" Nicholson on piano), it actually had the luck to be remas­tered and put out on CD, just so that everybody could see it as #153,288 on the Amazon Music Bestsellers List, just a tiny bit below Kidz Bop Vol. 20 in Big Mama's amazing post-mortem comeback to rule the musical world.

Other than Big Mama's, or the record label's, strange fascination with either clipping song names ('Baby Please' is 'Baby Please Don't Go', of course) or completely changing them ('Don't Need No Doctor' is really 'Goin' Down Slow') — probably for cash reasons, so that «Willie Mae Thornton» could appear on the songwriting credits without too much of a hassle — The Way It Is is really an excellent screenshot of the lady's state of affairs in 1970. And the lady was certainly in much better shape than her best student: around the same time that the teacher was belting it out like there was no tomorrow among enthusiastic L.A. clubgoing crowds, just a few miles away the Pierce Brothers West­wood Village Mortuary was busy flame-consuming the drug-soaked body of the student. Ironic, isn't it.

Anyway, this whole thing is mostly in the slow blues vein, only 'One Black Rat' breaks up the mood with a fast, classic R&B-ish beat and wild harmonica solos to remind the listener of what it used to be like on Peacock Records. But Big Mama always does slow blues the Big Mama way — the tempos may be slow, but the adrenaline level never drops below the one required for the craziest boogie. For the sakes of diversity, she includes a gospel number ('Wade In The Water') and a jazz standard (the lyricized version of Herbie Hancock's 'Watermelon Man', replete with a semi-improvised «street brawn» with the watermelon man in question), both of which are done fine — she's got enough sense not to butcher the original killer melody of 'Watermelon Man' like she did with some stuff on Stronger Than Dirt — but that's just diversity of source material for you, not diversity of approach. If there's one person in this world who'd always be talking to God in the same tone she'd be addressing a watermelon man, that's Willie Mae.

The medley of 'Baby Please Don't Go' and 'Got My Mojo Workin' is interesting in that the former is taken at a super-slow, creeping tempo (in stark contrast to the then-popular rock version), slow­er even than the original Big Joe Williams version — then, midway through, blam, we launch in­to the tribal jungle dance of 'Mojo', almost in consolatory compensation for the lull. As for longer out­standing moments, well, "Bee" Houston has a couple of fine, fluent, very «contemporary» blues solos on 'Little Red Rooster' and 'Sweet Little Angel': he was clearly the most up-to-date player in Big Mama's band, and not only is his playing here every bit as good as the notes one hears on concurrent B. B. King records, some of the climactic trills actually go well over King's technical threshold. Where is this guy's solo career?

A fun record, in general, not at all let down even by Big Mama's pompous bits of Vegas-y banter, typical side effects as they are of an overtly proud to be overtly polite black performer before an overtly proud to be overtly receptive white audience (well, that's more or less how it used to be in those still somewhat racially tense old times). Thumbs up.

Check "Way It Is" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Way It Is" (MP3) on Amazon

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