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Monday, July 11, 2011

Big Mama Thornton: With The Muddy Waters Band


1) I'm Feeling Alright; 2) Sometimes I Have A Heartache; 3) Black Rat; 4) Life Goes On; 5) Everything Gonna Be Alright; 6) Big Mama's Bumble Bee Blues; 7) Gimme A Penny; 8) Looking The World Over; 9) I Feel The Way I Feel; 10) Guide Me Home; 11) Black Rat; 12) Wrapped Tight; 13) Gimme A Penny; 14) Big Mama's Shuffle; 15) Since I Fell For You; 16) I'm Feeling Alright; 17) Big Mama's Blues.

Chris Strachwitz, president of Texas-based Arhoolie Records, was, in 1966, best known for secu­ring the publishing rights to Country Joe & The Fish's 'Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die', a song that millions of draft dodgers were only too happy to pay good money for if it helped them better ar­ticulate their arguments. Not being too sure about where and how to spend all that money, Strach­witz, a good person at heart, considered caring about Texan dispossessed, and, as fate would have it, fell upon Big Mama's freshly issued In Europe.

Like every good American patriot should, the Silesian-born Christian Alexander Maria, Graf Strachwitz von Groß-Zauche und Camminetz was a wee bit annoyed about blossoming American talent only able to secure a market in Europe. Thereupon, he personally got hold of Big Mama, flew her to San Francisco, and there, on April 25, 1966, teamed her up with the-then current back­ing band for Muddy Waters: Sammy Lawhorn on guitar, the fabulous James Cotton on har­monica, the magnificent Otis Spann on piano, a less-known but no-less-fluent Luther Johnson on bass, and Francis Clay on drums. Muddy himself adds some guitar on a few of the tracks, but ne­ver sings one note, leaving all the juicy bits to the lady.

The session was originally released in 1967, possibly (it is hard to find concise information) under the presumptuous name The Queen At Monterey (presumptuous and misleading — any album like that in 1967 would have given the impression that Big Mama performed at the famous Monterey Pop festival, when, in fact, the whole thing was not at all up her alley; but, considering that Janis Joplin did perform her 'Ball And Chain' at the venue, the misleading may have been in­tentional) and containing ten tracks; today, it is widely available under the quoted name as a 17-song CD edition, although three are just alternate takes. And, naturally, every serious blues lover should take advantage of that availability while it lasts.

The big difference from In Europe is that, this time around, there is no mighty fine aspiring young guitar superstar to outshine the rest of the performers: in fact, Muddy and Sammy are all the time kept relatively low in the mix, rarely, if ever, get to solo, and the emphasis the whole time is on collective playing, with the guitars, Spann's jazz-influenced pianos, and Cotton's relent­less harmonica blowing all going on together at the same time — and still, over all that din, Big Mama has them all beat whenever she opens her mouth.

The proceedings are also much more sternly blueslike, with no 'Hound Dog' in sight, just lotsa 12-bar and straightforward blues-rock and blues-balladry. We do get to evaluate Willie Mae's harmonica-blowing skills once more, on 'Big Mama's Shuffle', but overall, this is not a highly di­verse affair, and individual songs are not particularly discussable. Not that it matters. What mat­ters is that you should download yourself the first twenty seconds of 'I'm Feelin' Alright', and then decide for yourself if the connection between shuffling piano, blues harmonica, heavy as hell bass guitar, and Mama's tough brawn is as unique and rousing as it seems to me.

Because, in a way, Big Mama was the female blues performer to correlate almost directly with Muddy Waters as the male blues performer, and the decision to team her up with Muddy's perfect backing was a stroke of German genius on the part of Graf Strachwitz. Alas, the teaming up was performed a decade too late for the whole venture to succeed commercially — in 1967, few peo­ple had retained an active interest for Muddy himself, let alone a former one-hit wonder appro­priating Muddy's band — but today, now that time has flattened out past decades, the proud blues connoisseur can boast of this little jewel as the best pure blues album of 1966-67, if he so wishes, and even maintain that this was Willie Mae's finest hour, even despite the lack of Leiber-Stoller pre­sence. Thumbs up.

Check "With The Muddy Waters Blues Band" (CD) on Amazon
Check "With The Muddy Waters Blues Band" (MP3) on Amazon

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