Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Oh, Big Mama!

I'm Feeling Alright (1966)
Big Mama's Shuffle (1966)
(taken from Big Mama Thornton
with the Muddy Waters Blues Band - 1966
, 2004)

Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton is best known for recording "Hound Dog" three years before Elvis. That song was the only success she had on the charts--which is a travesty. Big Mama's voice is easily recognizable, and just hits you right in the heart. These recordings on the Arhoolie label, place Thornton alongside one of my favorite blues performers, Muddy Waters. In the Muddy Waters Blues Band during this session are Otis Spann (piano) and James Cotton (harmonica). Luther Johnson (bass), Samuel Lawhorn (guitar), and Francis Clay (drums) round out the band's line-up (Muddy was obviously wailing on the guitar).

Big Mama was having trouble sticking with a regular band. She was not getting steady gigs in the 60s, but thanks to some shows she played with Buddy Guy that all changed. After seeing Thornton play with Guy, the founder and president of Arhoolie, Chris Strachwitz, decided he wanted Big Mama to record for him. A few days before the session was to take place, Strachwitz saw the Muddy Waters band play in San Francisco and offered them the session with Thornton. Waters was getting as much work for his band as possible, and happily signed on. That series of events led to some fine recordings. Two tracks from those session in '66 are here for your enjoyment.

Two versions of "I'm Feeling Alright" appear on the album. The first is a bit downtempo, while the one above is the "fast version." This tune is a perfect example of the stellar combination of Big Mama's voice and Muddy's superb backing band.

The second track off the album features a different side of the talented Big Mama. "Big Mama's Shuffle" pits harp against harp. James Cotton wails on his harmonica as Big Mama responds on hers. This tune further supports the fact that Big Mama was and is underappreciated.

After this session, Big Mama told Strachwitz that she wanted to record a gospel album with Muddy and his group. It, unfortunately, never happened. Two tracks on the album are spirituals, but a whole album of Thornton doing gospel...with this band? Phew!



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