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Monday, August 8, 2011

Big Mama Thornton: Sassy Mama!

SASSY MAMA! (1975)

1) Rolling Stone; 2) Lost City; 3) Mr. Cool; 4) Big Mama's New Love; 5) Private Number; 6) Sassy Mama; 7) Eve­rybody's Happy (But Me).

Nearly forgotten, two decades past her alleged «prime», and having seriously lost weight, which all but forfeited the claim to the honorary «Big» prefix, Willie Mae Thornton just so happened to record the best album of her entire career. The only album, might I say — the only other time she went into the studio to cut a brand new set of tunes specially for the occasion was on Stronger Than Dirt, and, like I mentioned earlier, there were all sorts of problems with that LP.

There are only seven songs, the session players are mostly unknown, and the sales must have been so low that the recorded sequel, Big Mama Swings, was shelved upon completion, not to see the light of day before the Complete Vanguard Recordings compilation actually showed us that the sequel was not half bad, either. But it is the best possible album Big Mama could have done in the 1970s, and boy, should we ever be glad that she did do it.

How it happened, we do not know, but, apparently, Big Mama found herself uncontrolled and un­marketed by anyone — not a soul on her record label must have given a damn about what the kind of sound she should be associated with, so she just went ahead and did it all on her own. "I, I, uh... I'll do it like this", she introduces 'Private Number', singing the first bars a cappella, with the band gradually catching up with her, and that's symbolic of the entire album.

But the band is very much involved, too. The songs roll on for six, seven, eight minutes easily, not as jam sessions — as lengthy blues confessions that unroll as dialogs, trialogs, and quadrilogs between Willie Mae and her piano, guitar, and sax soloists. There's a general atmosphere of total free­dom, hearty fun, and, at the core of it, somber seriousness. 'Mr. Cool', the centerpiece, clocks in at 7:45, but there is hardly any problem with that, since Big Mama needs her bit players to warm her up gradually, until the ecstatic, climactic conclusion.

Obviously, there was no hope of the album making any kind of impression in 1975, when most of the interest in «black music» was focused on its dance aspects, but so much more the reason to clear up this mistake and recognize Sassy Mama! as one of the finest things black music had to offer in the year of 'Love To Love You Baby'. And do not make the mistake of getting it on its own, because, like I already said, the long-lost companion piece, Big Mama Swings, offers more of the same — exactly the same, which is why I refrain from giving it a separate review, but exac­tly the same level of awesomeness, culminating in 'Happy Me', which should be recognized as one of Big Mama's finest, on the same level with 'Ball & Chain' at least. Suffice it to say that it is probably the darkest, grimmest soul-blues piece ever to feature that kind of title, bizarre and in­triguing in its paradoxal nature. And if the first album already is an unquestionable thumbs up, the two together request getting your big toes up as well.

Alas, just as Mama hit that kind of peak, something happened — either her health finally gave out altogether, or the label stripped her of studio time, but, anyway, all of her post-1975 recordings are extremely scarce, hard to find, and even controversial. Discographies list an LP called Ma­ma's Pride, released in 1978, but hardly ever with a track listing, so it is not even clear if it was a new recording in the first place. There are also some archival live recordings from around 1977, said to be quite good (which I can believe) but also difficult to find. Then there was a car accident, but she still managed to perform at Newport in 1983. Then, like so many other heroes of the past, Big Mama passed away quietly somewhere in L.A. in 1984.

Check "Sassy Mama" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Sassy Mama!" (MP3) on Amazon

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