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June 2000

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Big Mama Thornton
The Complete Vanguard Recordings
Vanguard

Big Mama ThorntonBig Mama Thornton is a name that is familiar to many blues lovers, but sadly her music is not all that well known to most. Willie Mae Thornton's influence on the music world in the 1950s and 60s was not realized unfortunately until the 70s, which brings us to The Complete Vanguard Recordings. This is a three CD set of the two albums released in 1975 and one album that has never been released until now. In fact, the record company didn't know it existed until they were going through their vaults for the first two and stumbled across the third.

Disc one, Jail, is a live album recorded in two state prisons as was popular in the 70s after Johnny Cash's successful San Quentin recordings. The performances turned in by Big Mama and a very explosive band, whose harp player was the legendary George "Harmonica" Smith, capture what she did the best --- work an audience into a frenzy! The set includes two tunes that were her signature numbers, but, unfortunately for her, were monstrous hits for other artists. Willie Mae wrote "Ball and Chain," later covered by Janis Joplin. The other song, "Hound Dog," was recorded by her three years before some young kid from Memphis made millions with it. Most folks don't even know that she had recorded the original (oh, and by the way, she made about $500 total from it), which is completely different than the more familiar version. A thoroughly nasty version of "Rock Me Baby" is another of the highlights of disc one, and a return to her roots in gospel with the stirring "Oh Happy Day" is easily the best tune of the set.

Disc two is Sassy Mama, also released in 1975. Big Mama is backed by an all-star cast of studio musicians like Cornell Dupree and Ronnie Miller on guitars, Paul Griffin on keyboards, Jimmy Johnson on drums and the hot tenor sax of Buddy Lucas. This album is Big Mama strutting her stuff to the fullest, with rich commanding vocal intensity and the in your face delivery that set her apart from other singers of her era. It's a bit difficult to single out one or two numbers from this disc as highlights because, as an album, this one is as close to perfection as Willie Mae ever recorded. But if I had to choose: "Rolling Stone," the sultry "Mr. Cool," and the naughty "Big Mama's New Love," along with the album's swinging title track caught my ear the quickest.

The third in this collection is seeing release for the first time as part of this already impressive package. Big Mama Swings features the same musicians from the "Sassy Mama" sessions, with the addition of Ernie Hayes on piano. The title of this disc is slightly deceptive as there is not a considerable amount of "swing" to be found per sť. What you will find is some exceptionally produced and performed blues circa mid 70s Los Angeles, where Willie Mae made her home the final decade or so of her life. "Good-Bye Baby," "Special," and the title number are the standouts, and all feature very impressive guitar licks by Cornell Dupree.

Big Mama Thornton was the epitome of a tough hard-living, hard-drinking blueswoman. Born and raised in the deep south of the 20s, she went on the road at a very young age singing the blues and perfecting her craft. She often dressed very masculine and didn't take a lot of crap from anyone right up until the end. Though the misfortunes of shyster producers and record companies marred her early career, Willie Mae never gave up on what she loved to do. Thanks to another hard living singer, namely Janis Joplin, Big Mama's career saw quite the revival in the late sixties due to the popularity of Joplin's recording of "Ball and Chain." A whole new audience of both young and old fans rediscovered the power and sheer excitement of Big Mama Thornton. She was never out of work again. Right up until her untimely death in 1984, she was recording steadily and appearing at blues festivals around the country.

The three recordings presented in this collection are Willie Mae singing her heart out as only she could do. A special tip of the hat to the folks at Vanguard Records for once again reissuing some classic recordings lovingly remastered to today's standards in what seems to be a continuing series from their archives. Big Mama would have been proud.

--- Steve Hinrichsen

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