[2 February 2006]
Willie Mae Thornton was first heard of by many European blues fans when she turned up as the female performer on one year’s American Folk Blues Festival tour. Suddenly, young Europeans were hailing a new—for them—name, that of a wonderful lady bluesman. If the language seems sexist, it’s just my attempt to exemplify the feelings of the time for those confronted by discovering at last a female performer firmly in the idiom of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. No other such lady comes to mind.
Yes, there had been Memphis Minnie, who as I recall survived a few years more and even enjoyed royalties from the late Jo-Anne Kelly, a British guitarist and emulator who died tragically young. There had also been Lucille Bogan, as great a blues singer as ever soured milk. But these performers were not on the immediate trajectory of the post-1950s rock-and-roll fans—who went mostly for guitarists—or of the late1940s fans of earlier jazz, some of whom did become interested in blues of all sorts, but whose general reference to what many supposed had been lady blues singers included Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, and Lucille Hegamin. Ms. Hegamin was one of several performers who were really 1920s pop singers whose repertoires market forces had invested with blues numbers. To land unexpectedly on a recording by such a performer, no blues singer, definitely didn’t enchant the 1960s hardline blues fan. Nor did the contributions of major jazzmen on recordings by other ladies, even such an out-and-out blues performer like Chippie Hill, delight blues fans dominated somewhat by purist and even primitivist ideals—and liable to say daft things like: “Big Joe Turner isn’t Blues, he’s JAZZ!” (last personally overheard maybe as late as 1990).
Actually, Big Joe was a Kansas City blues singer, who could record equally with Buck Clayton or Elmore James; or with New Orleans R&B musicians as a supposed pioneer of rock-and-roll. Blues purists were also wary of tendencies toward contemporary Soul/R&B (Marvin Gaye, etc.) for being better marketed and far less unfashionable than straight blues. The question of stylistic and idiomatic integrity isn’t irrelevant. It implies serious listening, and can even be intelligent, unlike the perorations of one present-day hack, yearning for a time he thought not long ago (in fact it was not ever) before pedantic critics had started to discriminate within the body of what he thought most healthily should be regarded as African-American Popular Music by use such stuffy fussy academicisms as ‘jazz’, ‘blues’, ‘soul’ (although for a really promiscuous multiplication of sub-sub-sub-genre particularizations, see 21st century pop marketing).
As for Ms. Thornton, I’d suspect that by the time she emerged from Houston, Texas, as a contemporary of Big Joe, she’d heard a wider variety of music than probably has survived into the 21st century. And unlike some of Mrs. Hegamin’s contemporaries, who only ever sang all the same, she was able to switch between the modest range of current sub-genres with decent facility (unlike, for instance, Howlin’ Wolf, whom I wouldn’t have wished otherwise!), but also with naturalness and, where possible, depth. Some of her European converts would have been horrified to hear her in the West Coast melange of styles which Johnny Otis delivered, or with some accompaniments plainly other than the Chicago adaptations of acoustic Mississippi country blues. They’d even have regarded it as a betrayal of ideals.
The ideals were very much their own, but at least critically acute within a certain fanaticism. From a point of view that’s sheerly one of idiom, and of getting the lady to exercise gifts qua bluesperson and by no means shared by many of her rivals, having her on tape in this programme in the precise Chicago company that was with her on that 1977 Montreal gig is almost as splendid as was Chris Strachwitz’s enterprise of recording an album by her in various similar combinations when she was on that tour in Europe.
Less relevant than any subsequent recording of “Ball and Chain” is the guitar intro from Philip Guy, who like Liberace, had a brother George, who—unlike the pianist’s sibling—is one Buddy Guy. Philip’s a second guitarist from the same stable as his brother, with the sometimes pinched-sounding, sometimes mandolin-like approach. He’s a quiet player, and it’s not a power band, but it’s a very good one for allowing Big Mama’s scope for subtlety, or the tenderness she manages despite the big, heavily-weathered voice on “Rock Me”. They seem to have heard B.B. King’s now ancient record and decided to do a bit more, with very good harmonica from Big Mama. With the relaxed enthusiasm that marks this date, she introduces John Primer, the second guitarist, as soloist.
The sheer blues potential of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” is realised with a nod in the direction of earlier lady blues singers, and turns into a speech-song monologue. On “Summertime”, her vocal style at times resembles Buddy Guy’s, though her falsettos get way further up in the sky than his ever could. Philip’s version of the Guy guitar style is delicate. Big Mama could roar, which is probably how her voice roughened, but she has a lot of finesse. After the quiet of “Summertime”, she bellows into the start of “Hound Dog” before turning nicely mellow, a procedure followed without mechanical monotony with every stanza on this sometime hit. She ends it with a couple of verses of “Walkin’ the Dog”.
“Sweet Little Angel” has the same aggressive dive-in followed by sensitivity for the rest of the verse. There’s not a full band sound, but a spacious echoey sound, very like on Sun recordings of the early 1950s. John Primer even sounds like Willie Johnson on early Howlin’ Wolf titles, and Moose John Walker’s piano, added for the final two titles, colours the background. It’s very laid back, owing a lot to the strong accents of Burt Robertson’s drums.
“Sassy Mama” finishes with the sound of an early Howlin’ Wolf band, Walker thumping away and soloing like Henry Gray, Big Mama sounding very definite, but neither threatening nor oppressive. The word is human. This would have been a great LP by 1960s standards, at which date blues albums for the indigenous, pre-revival market could be a little short in the playing time. I missed it when it came out first in 1994, by which time Big Mama had been dead ten years, making this reissue a wonderful discovery now.