Big Mama Thornton – Sassy Mama: Live At The Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club
When Great Mom Thornton came on stage in 1977, she was struggling. Although she had pioneered rock, blues and R&B in the 1950s, she had been largely forgotten except as someone whose songs were covered and whose style was cut by Elvis and Janis Joplin, among others. Influence, however, does not pay the bills. She toured continuously to survive, although she was so physically weak that she had to be helped onstage. The alcoholism accelerated her decline and ravaged her voice, so that she was nothing more than a creak compared to the hurricane she had once been.
And yet, she gives a hell of a performance. What she lacked in physical power, she more than made up for in sheer charisma, as if she’d learned a whole new bag of tricks to sell those old songs to a new audience. Holding court in a folding chair and facing a five-piece band, she scales back her once-loud songs to be quieter, weirder, scarier even. There is a lot of space and silence in these figures. His band occasionally bows out for several bars, leaving Thornton screaming and screaming into the void: declarations of determination, cries of survival. Listen to the rhythm of his exclamations at the end of “Summer time”, how she puts one or two more beats between her exclamations: “Your mommy!/And daddy!/They might be over there!” It is
a sneaky way of drawing you into the song even as it ends, indicating a certain comfort and safety nearby. “I said you had nothing to worry about!”
Small but intimate, known for its attentive and grateful audience, the Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club in Montreal was an ideal place to Thornton at this stage of his life. It’s been home to a steady slew of old and overlooked blues and R&B legends, including Lightin’ Hopkins and muddy watersand owner Rouè-Doudou Boicel recorded most of their sets. sassy mom was originally released in 1994 and again in 2005, but this version marks the first time it has appeared on vinyl, accompanied by a residual remix of “Hunting dog”.
“Hunting dog” – also included here in a medley with “Walkin’ the Dog” by Rufus Thomas – was crucial to his career and to his legacy. After touring the South as a drummer, singer and harmonica player in the 1940s, Thornton signed as a solo artist with Houston-based Peacock Records. The fact that she was openly and shamelessly gay alienated some of her peers, but her booming voice and proficiency with so many instruments made her a popular attraction even before “Hunting dog” sold two million copies in 1951. Three years later, a white kid from Memphis imitated her performance and topped her five times.
In the 1960s, Thornton moved to San Francisco and performed in nightclubs on the West Coast. Joplin attended one of these shows and was mesmerized by the performance, especially “The Ball and the Chain”. by Thornton barely beaten original Joplin’s cover the market, but the latter was such a hit that the song was generally associated with the white performer rather than the black author. Like many of his peers, Thornton saw very little money from his own recordings, let alone covers from other artists. Despite their intentions to honor him, Presley and Joplin were obstacles instead of advantages, blocking any professional momentum Thornton had.
So they both become just names to drop in song intros, like when she says she’s going to play “The Ball and the Chain” “the way I wrote it. [Janis] I may have made some changes… I don’t know.
Thornton asks his band to play it like BB King, with minimal overtones telegraphing a somber mood. “I didn’t say get ugly with it, I just said play!” she says after a nice gnarly guitar swipe. At the end, she deconstructs the song, wringing out every drop of meaning from every syllable.
Whether it’s a fast jam or a low lament, Thornton had a way of crawling inside these songs and inhabiting them with strength and humor. Sometimes that even means ignoring the song altogether. Just a few steps in “The Watermelon Man” she starts a long one-sided conversation with a selling grower, using every trick to get free fruit. It’s like hearing part of a phone conversation that escalates completely unexpectedly: “You may not even know what kind of police I’m going to call!”
she exclaims at one point.
It’s a fantastical and eccentric reimagining of a well-known standard that shows how Thornton could sing the blues without withering under the weight of his own troubles or the song’s troubles. Instead, this Sunrise set is more about getting rid of that burden: playing blues to exorcise your demons. With every scream, howl, and howl, she marks her place in the world, even if that place isn’t as big or as important as it should have been. “I’m not going anywhere,” she exclaims at the end of “The Ball and the Chain”. “I’m still sitting in that chair!” »