BIG MAMA THORNTON: JAIL (1975)
1) Little Red Rooster; 2) Ball 'n' Chain; 3) Jail; 4) Hound Dog; 5) Rock Me Baby; 6) Sheriff O. E. & Me; 7) Oh Happy Day.
Information on Big Mama's whereabouts during the first half of the 1970s is sketchy at best. There seems to have been at least one album of gospel tunes (Saved, dated in different sources to either 1971 and 1973; all I know for sure is that the release was on Pentagram Records, and yes, she does cover 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot', so do not expect huge massive surprises), and there may have been occasional guest appearances here and there.
But the «essential Big Mama» truly resurfaces only in five years time, and with another live album — and a classic one. Released on Vanguard, Jail is culled from two different performances at Monroe State Prison in Monroe, Washington and Oregon State Reformatory in Eugene, Oregon (I am, of course, listing this detailed information just in case you ever turn up there and get a chance to chat with an eighty-year old inmate). And even if one could say that Big Mama was merely following a trend here, already well established by Johnny Cash and B. B. King and others, who's to deny that Willie Mae, with her brusque and rowdy ways, wouldn't be the perfect rhythm & blues advertiser in that kind of environment?
The emphasis here is not merely on giving the people a good time, but, as it is with the best of prison albums, on giving them a realistically good time. Two of the songs — the slow blues of the title track and the happy shuffle of 'Sheriff O. E. & Me' — relate directly to prison time issues, and then there's 'Ball 'n' Chain', whose title, in a setting like this, would be very easy to take literally. 'Jail' is, of course, the album's centerpiece, with the darkest guitar solos and the grinniest grin on Mama's face, no doubt, as she introduces herself: "Well, here I am again — sitting down in this old rotten jail..." much to the inmates' delirious delight.
The album's got minor surprises — 'Little Red Rooster', for instance, is not what you'd think, but rather an entirely different, much faster boogie number, quite a kickass opener; 'Hound Dog' is probably the second best, maybe even the first best rendition in Mama's catalog, with a chuggy, funky rhythm guitar part supplanting the original accompaniment; and 'Oh, Happy Day' (which, I believe, was also recorded for the Saved album) is a rare occasion to hear Willie Mae sing gospel pop — in a reasonably restrained and fun way, with the band heartedly accelerating towards the end (too bad the record fades out for some reason).
For the record, the band includes George "Harmonica" Smith on Turkish komuz (nah, just joking), J. D. Nichols on piano, Bill Potter dominating much of the overall sound on tenor sax, and the trusty Eddie Huston on stinging guitar, augmented by Steve Wachsman on second guitar (maybe it's Steve who plays the cool funky part on 'Hound Dog', I don't really know). The album itself is generally available these days on the 3-CD long Complete Vanguard Recordings collection, a very welcome addition to your collection if you dig «Americana» at all. We'll get around to the rest of it soon enough; in the meantime — thumbs up, no questions asked.