BIG MAMA THORNTON: A TRIBUTE

BIG MAMA THORNTON December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984

RECOMMENDED ALBUMS: BIG MAMA THORNTON IN EURPOE (Arhoolie), BIG MAMA THORNTON AND THE MUDDY WATERS BLUES BAND (Arhoolie), THE ORIGINAL HOUND DOG (Ace Records)

While there are many who claim to be the true “Queen of the Blues” few make a better argument then Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Born near Montgomery, Alabama in 1926 Big Mama enjoyed an incredible career that lasted over 30 years. Even though she never became as much of a household name as the people she influenced she still made her mark on the music world. While she is best known for singing the original version of the song “Hound Dog” (a song that was written specifically for her) that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her influence on music history. An openly gay African-American woman in the music industry Big Mama was a trailblazer. She commanded the stage with her towering figure and booming voice. Artists such as Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin sang her praises (quite literally in the case of Janis) and there is even a music camp for young women named in her honor (williemaerockcamp.org). While life wasn’t always easy for Big Mama she always stuck to her guns and kept moving forward.
BIG MAMA’S HOUND DOG
Recorded 1952 and released on Don Robey’s Peacock Records, Big Mama’s version of “Hound Dog” was an instant hit. Originally more of a blues song, “Hound Dog” was written with Big Mama specifically in mind by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Even though the song eventually became a number 1 hit, it didn’t translate into a big payday for anyone except record label owner Don Robey. While the exact story isn’t totally clear, Big Mama only received $500 for her services and songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller got almost nothing. Of course Leiber and Stroller would eventually cash in BIG in 1956 when Elvis Presley recorded his reworked version of “Hound Dog” but as Big Mama wasn’t one of the songwriters the success of the Elvis version didn’t translate into any kind of payday for her. Always the business man, Robey tried to cash in again for himself when the Elvis version became a hit by rereleasing Big Mama’s version of the track but nothing much came of it. In 1965 Big Mama re-recorded the tune with blues guitar great Buddy Guy for her album BIG MAMA THORNTON IN EUROPE. This version might be some of her best work and smokes any version ever sung by Elvis.
THE SIXTIES
While she made many recordings during her career it was her live performances that set her apart from other blues singers. An entertainer through and though, Big Mama was a multi-instrumentalist and her live show regularly featured her playing a variety of instruments. She kept a rigorous touring schedule usually touring as part of travelling multi-performer blues revues and package tours with other artists. Even though she was almost always the only woman on these shows Big Mama NEVER got pushed around and usually was the highlight of the show. In fact there were several times when performing as the opening act, she put on such a powerful show that the headliner refused to perform! That said, the life of a touring musician can be a grueling and strenuous one. In the late 50’s. Rock n’ Roll and Soul started taking over the music charts and soon barroom blues artists like Big Mama were left on the outside looking in. Realizing it was time for a change she relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area and began performing in local clubs.
 As the sixties began Big Mama started to see her career pick up steam again. In 1965 she recorded her first album for the Berkeley based roots music label Arhoolie. Entitled BIG MAMA THORNTON IN EUROPE, and recorded while she was on tour in Europe with traditional Chicago blues legends Buddy Guy, Big Walter Horton, and Eddie Boyd this album turned out to be one of the best albums of her career. While Big Mama sounds right at home fronting a big electric band, producer (and Arhoolie label owner) Chris Strachwitz fortunately had the foresight to know she would also sound good in an acoustic setting. So he paired her with country blues guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell for three songs. A second record for Arhoolie followed in 1966 this time pairing Big Mama with The Muddy Waters Blues band.  Again Big Mama nails these recordings and sounds so good you almost forget that Muddy Waters was also in the room. The Arhoolie albums proved to be nothing short of a godsend for her career. While she still fell short of being a household name the albums introduced her music to a younger audience and made her a regular on the blues and folk festival circuit.
In 1966 while performing in a San Francisco club Big Mama was approached by a young Janis Joplin. A huge fan of Big Mama’s, Janis asked her if she could cover her song Ball N’ Chain with her band Big Brother & The Holding Company. Big Mama gave Janis her blessing and soon thereafter Janis and her group reworded the song into a loud rockin slow blues. After being a live staple of their live show for several years Janis and her band released a live version of Ball N’ Chain in 1968 on their album CHEAP THRILLS. The album became a huge hit and Ball N’ Chain soon became a blues standard performed by many different groups. While this time Big Mama was credited as the songwriter, the matter of who owned the copyright became a huge mess. Apparently Big Mama had recorded the song in the early 60’s for Bay Tone records but the label never released the recording. They did however hold onto the copyright which allowed them to cash in on the song’s success thanks to the CHEAP THRILLS album. So while Big Mama did see some royalties from the recording she definitely didn’t make as much as she should have.
THE FINAL YEARS
Trying to ride the success of Janis Joplin’s version of Ball N’ Chain on CHEAP THRILLS, Arhoolie Records released a third Big Mama album entitled BALL N’ CHAIN. While the album is mostly a collection of her previously released Arhoolie Recordings the record does contain her performing a newly recorded version of Ball N’ Chain. Unfortunately this would be her last album for Arhoolie. Even with the success of Ball N’ Chain and Janis Joplin singing her praises she still failed to gain the national notoriety she deserved. As the 70’s began Big Mama continued to perform but her recorded output, while solid, was much less inspired and didn’t grab the attention of anyone besides blues connoisseurs. It also didn’t help that her health was beginning to fail due to years of drinking and hard living. In 1983 she was involved in a terrible automobile accident. She continued to perform but her mobility was limited. She ended up passing away from a heart attack in 1984 at only 57 years of age.
While she left us too soon and definitely didn’t ever achieve the notoriety she deserved she more than made her mark on the musical world. Fortunately all of her Arhoolie albums are still in print (as of Feb 2021) and are digitized and available on iMusic and Spotify. As for her earlier Peacock works, there are many collections available on-line and in record stores.  For those that want to see her in action there are many videos of her on YouTube where you can see her and different stages of her career.  Hopefully her body of work continues to find new ears and eyes and bring attention

GOSPEL MUSIC IS THE ROOTS?

The late great Willie Dixon once said “The Blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits”.  While it might be taboo to disagree with a musical legend like Dixon (especially while he was alive as he was also a 300-lbs boxer), I must respectfully do so.  In my personal opinion, it is Gospel and spiritual music that we have to credit with being the musical tree that provided us with most all other forms of popular music.
While popular music may have evolved further and further away from it’s roots in Gospel and spiritual music over the years you can still hear the genre’s influence in some of today’s popular music.  Example, when you listen to artists like Beyonce’, Childish Gambino, and Bruno Mars you can definitely hear that somewhere along the way they were influenced, maybe indirectly, by artists like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles.  James, Aretha, and Ray were all influenced heavily by Gospel music.  Aretha grew up in the in the church, Ray took a song by the little known gospel group The Southern Tones and turned it into “I Got A Women”, and Mr. Brown’s stage show was basically a secular version of a baptist revival. Same with Country music. You’d be hard pressed to find a country artist today that wasn’t inspired by Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, or George Jones in some way.  Each of those artists recorded gospel albums over their long and impressive careers.  Rock music? Same thing.  Most modern rock bands in some way have been inspired by artists like The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, etc. Those artists listened to the Blues and Blues came from Gospel and spiritual music. We could talk about how Jamaican Reggae and Ska musicians listened to Blues, R&B, and Gospel music in the 1950’s over radio waves they picked up from America, but my feeling is you’re getting my point. The roots of most genres of popular music begin in Gospel and spiritual music.
Now, while one might enjoy the melodies in Gospel music there still might be a hang up when it comes to the lyrics.  I totally understand that.  Personally I am not a religious person and identify more as an atheist. Still, I LOVE classic gospel and spiritual music!  I love the passion in the music and the wonderful melodies.  Also, I appreciate how Gospel music has helped a lot of folks through some very rough times in history.  So while I may not have all the same beliefs as the person singing the music I am still able to enjoy the music.
Here are some of my favorite Gospel albums and artists that I hope you’ll check out.
STAPLE SINGERS
FREEDOM HIGHWAY epic records
 While a live album of the same name was released in 1965 (which is also excellent) this record is compiled of studio versions of Gospel classics such as “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, and “Wade In The Water”.  The record also features probably the best song band leader Roebuck “Pops” Staples ever wrote, “Why Am I Treated So Bad?”. Pops wrote the song after watching the events surrounding “The Little Rock Nine” unfold on television.  The song became a hit not only for the Staple Singers but also an anthem of the Civil Rights movement during the 1960’s.
BROTHER JOHN SELLERS
BAPTISTS SHOUTS & GOSPEL SONGS smithsonian folkways recordings
Born in Mississippi in 1924, Brother John Sellers was one of the best (and most underrated) Blues/Gospel singers ever to record. His larger-then-life voice is best showcased here on his 1959 album BAPTISTS SHOUTS & GOSPEL SONGSSellers was discovered by the great Mahalia Jackson when he was a youngster performing in local gospel showcases.  As an adult he became an in-demand entertainer performing all over the world with legends like Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Jo Jones, and Jackson herself. He passed away from diabetes related complications in 1999.
MAHALIA JACKSON:
MAHALIA! SINGS GOSPEL RIGHT OUT OF THE CHURCH columbia records
During Mahalia Jackson’s impressive career she introduced millions of music lovers all over the world to Gospel music. She inspired artists such as James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin, performed for world leaders, and was a powerful presence in the civil rights movement.  While she has hundreds of recordings my personal favorite is MAHALIA! SINGS GOSPEL RIGHT OUT OF THE CHURCH.  The material is mostly up beat and beautifully recorded. Even though this record came out later in Jackson’s career her voice has never sounded better.
THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS
20th CENTRY MASTERS COLLECTION
MCA Records
Few Gospel vocal groups have been more influential then The Dixie Hummingbirds. During the 1940’s and 50’s (generally referred to as “The Golden Age of Gospel”), they were megastars. They packed arenas, paved the way for future vocal groups like The Temptations and The Four Tops, and sold piles of records.  You can even trace their influence to modern pop groups like Boys II Men and N’Sync.  While the Hummingbirds have many recordings available a great place to start is their “best of” collection “THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS 20th CENTURY MASTERS”. This collection gives you a good overview of their sound and features their Grammy winning hit “Loves Me Like A Rock”.
THE SOUL STIRRERS
JOY IN MY SOUL: THE COMPLETE SAR RECORDINGS
ABKCO Music & Records
The Soul Stirrers were another group that were megastars during the Gospel’s golden age.  While they are best known for being the group that kick-started Sam Cooke’s career in the 1950’s, the group’s origins go back to the mid 1930’s.  With Cooke in the group the Stirrers achieved rockstar-like status and recorded several hits for Specialty Records.  While the group was at their musical best when they were with Cooke, my personal favorite collection of theirs is JOY IN MY SOUL: THE COMPLETE SAR RECORDINGS.  This collection features recordings the group did for Sam Cooke’s own record label SAR Records after he had officially left the group. Many of these recordings were produced by Cooke himself and show that even in their later years the group was one of the very best vocal Gospel groups.
SISTER ROSETTA THARPE
GOSPEL OF THE BLUES
MCA RECORDS

Born in Arkansas in 1915 Sister Rosetta Tharpe influenced Rock and Popular music more then most people know.  A young Little Richard got his start by opening for her before anybody knew who he was. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan all cite Sister Rosetta as a major influence, and during her heyday she performed for stadium sized crowds all over the world. In short, Sister Rosetta was a rockstar before Rock n’ Roll even existed.

While there are many recordings of Sister Rosetta available a good place to start when wanting to learn more about her music is a collection of her early recordings entitled THE GOSPEL OF THE BLUES.  This collection is complied of tracks recorded 1938 – 1948 and features a dynamite version of her hit “Shout, Sister, Shout”. The record also features a number of her recordings with Lucky Millinder’s Orchestra and the Sammy Price Trio. These tracks show that Sister Rosetta could swing as hard as she could rock!

BUDDY GUY “WHEN I LEFT HOME”

 

A few years ago while I was doing a blues gig in San Francisco and I got into a conversation with another musician about great Blues guitar players.  “It’s a shame there aren’t any great blues players left” he said.  “That’s not true” I replied, “B.B. is still around and of course you have Buddy Guy”.  The musician gave me a strange look and said “What?! Why do you like Buddy Guy?  I saw him once and he just played a bunch of Hendrix riffs”.  All I could do at that point was chuckle and reply, “Yeah, well where do you think Hendrix, got some of those ideas from?   Jimi was a student of the Blues and listened to all the blues records he could get his hands on.  The guitar player on many of these records was Buddy Guy. ”

Buddy Guy’s guitar playing has inspired guitar players in every genre of music for over fifty years. Always an exciting live act, Buddy has taken his exciting brand of electric blues all all over the world.  He’s shared the stage with blues legends like Muddy Waters and rockers like The Rolling Stones.  He’s headlined countless festivals, performed on television and even performed for Presidents and royalty.  That being said his impressive career isn’t limited just to the stage.  During the 1960’s Buddy was an in-demand studio musician for Chess records and played lead guitar on many hits by the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Koko Taylor.  In short, Buddy Guy has lived enough in his 76 years of life to count for three lifetimes.

In “When I Left Home” Buddy (with help from David Ritz) takes us from the farm he grew up on in Louisiana to the streets of Chicago.  A master storyteller, Buddy doesn’t hold back when talking about the ups and downs of life as a blues man. With a mother in need of extra medical attention after suffering a stroke, he left Louisiana for Chicago in search work that would able him to not only support himself but also send money back home to Louisiana.  Already proficient on guitar from playing around clubs in Louisiana, Buddy worked himself into the Chicago scene with the help of some local blues fans and eventually with help from the great Muddy Waters.  One would think that this would be the ending of our story, but this is only the beginning.  Over the next several years Buddy works hard to establish himself as one of the premier Blues guitar players on the Chicago scene.  Working as a tow-truck driver in the day, playing clubs and doing recording sessions at night he found himself working night and day to make his dream happen and take care of his family.  “When I Left Home” is the no-nonsense story of George “Buddy” Guy, and like it’s author, this story is THE REAL DEAL.

Not familiar with the music of Buddy Guy? Here are some albums I think you might enjoy. There are also many single recordings featuring Buddy, more information on these recordings and the albums listed below can be found in the back of the book “When I Left Home”.

Artist/Album

BUDDY GUY ALBUMS

“Buddy’s Blues” (Best of his Chess recordings)

“A Man and The Blues”

“Buddy and The Junior’s” (Buddy Guy with Junior Wells and Junior Mance)

“Damn Right I Got The Blues”

“Sweet Tea”

“Blues Singer”

“Can’t Quit The Blues” (Box Set)

RECORDS FEATURING BUDDY GUY

JUNIOR WELLS “Hoodoo Man Blues”

MUDDY WATERS “Folk Singer”

Etta James & Johnny Otis

 

This morning as I was writing a post to pay tribute to the life of the great Johnny Otis, who passed away yesterday, I learned of the passing of one of the greatest artists Johnny ever discovered, Ms. Etta James. While Etta James is a house-hold name (and rightfully so) the name Johnny Otis is sadly becoming less and less known by today’s music fans. Besides giving Etta James her first big break, Mr. Otis also helped start the careers of many top R&B performers. When not performing with his own band he was in the studio recording and producing sides for many of the best R&B performers. It was Johnny Otis who produced and performed on the original 1952 recording of Hound Dog featuring Big Mama Thornton. Two years later in 1954 Otis found himself in the studio again with another young blues singer, a woman by the name of Jamesetta Hawkins. Like Big Mama Thornton, Jamesetta started out performing with The Johnny Otis Band. She then moved to Los Angeles and entered the studio with the band to record what would be her break out song “The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)”. Written by Johnny Otis “The Wallflower” was an answer song to the Hank Ballard tune “Work With Me Annie”. Shortly after the release of the song Jamesetta (now going by the stage name Etta James) started off on a solo career that would last over 50 years. She recorded many smash hits for a number of different labels and released albums up until 2011. In addition to being successful in the recording studio James was also successful on the stage and would continue to be an in-demand performer until 2009 when she was unable to perform due to health issues.
As for Johnny Otis, discovering Etta James was just one of the many highlights in a career that lasted well into his eighties. A true renaissance man, Otis was a songwriter, performer, producer, author, store and bar owner, and painter. He even got involved in politics in his home state of California during the 1960’s. However, with all these accomplishments Johnny Otis is probably best know for writing the hit song “Willie and The Hand Jive” which would sell over 1.5 million copies and be covered by Eric Clapton for his 1974 album 461 Ocean Boulevard.
During the their lifetimes both Etta James and Johnny Otis brought to joy to millions of fans all over the world, they are both members of multiple halls of fame, and their influence can be heard in the music of artists in every genre of music. They will both be dearly missed.