Jackie Richardson (photo by Tim Matheson)
Some people have the right to sing the blues
The blues heal the soul, like snake venom heals a snake bite.
by Nanette Cormier
[Please note: This review is based on a preview performance]
Willie Mae Thornton left Montgomery, Alabama, when she was 15, about a year after her mother died, to join Sammy Green's Georgia-based Hot Harlem Revue. It was 1941. She had a chaperone who travelled with her from city to city in the south. None of the men in the revue drank or took drugs. And of course, none of them were interested in a 15 year old girl.
Oh, all right, it was all true up to the word chaperoned. Willie Mae became a woman while a member of the review which toured from 1941 to 1948. She also earned valuable stage experience.
Nothing good in Willie Mae's life was made to last. In between gigs, she shined shoes, was a drummer/bouncer in an Oakland bar in the 50s, she slept in all night restaurants and bars, in barns, and she picked cotton in Mississippi for awhile; the work was insanely hard.
Her voice is a powerhouse; her sound is huge, and deep, and wide and whole, and you have to close your eyes because you don't want to cry; you hear the blues being sung that clearly.
Jackie Richardson, as Big Mama, weaves a tale of a hard-lived life. 'Blues women gotta be tough to survive', she says at one point. 'The blues ain't just about being sad, or about having no food, or being done wrong by a man; the blues are about dealing with all that-- with life'.
Interspersed throughout these musings, mostly light hearted, funny, totally committed to the moment and to the audience, Ms Richardson sings songs that make your heart want to stop beating. Her voice is a powerhouse; her sound is huge, and deep, and wide and whole, and you have to close your eyes because you don't want to cry; you hear the blues being sung that clearly.
You can feel the pain of someone living those blues. And the woman can act! Jackie Richardson plays a tough, man-punching, lady blues singer who can take care of herself in that great big world. And though Willie Mae Thornton's language is that of an uneducated woman, she's charismatic and funny and it doesn't matter how she says anything. What an incredible presence Jackie Richardson has, as did Willie Mae Thornton, from all that I've read.
Willie Mae Thornton was the first to record the hit song "Hound Dog" in 1952. The record was #1 on the Billboard RandB charts for seven weeks in 1953; the single sold almost two million copies.
Its B-side was "They Call Me Big Mama." Three years later, Elvis Presley recorded his even more successful rendition of "Hound Dog," based on a version performed by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. And let me point out that the lyrics in Elvis's version did not include: 'You can wag your tail, but I ain't gonna feed you no more '. Just saying: the King's version was a lot faster, a lot less bluesy, and fairly tame. Nothing like the suggestive and lascivious version that Ms. Richardson treated us to.
Similarly, Thornton wrote and recorded "Ball and Chain", which became a hit for her, yet Janis Joplin's late 1960s recording of it made an even bigger impact. Now don't get me started on Janis Joplin, of whom Ms. Thornton is very laudatory because Janis asked permission to record "Ball and Chain" and that meant a lot to Ms. Thornton. Let me say this about that: we were on drugs in the 60s and that is the only explanation I can find for calling Janis Joplin a great blues singer. She had whiskey cured vocal chords and she could scream. That's it.
Thanks to YouTube I've been able to listen to old recordings of Ms. Thornton's songs, and she could always attack the lyric; there was never any hesitation.
Ms. Thornton talks about her lovers, including Buddy Guy, an American blues guitarist and singer. Critically acclaimed, he was a pioneer of the Chicago blues sound and was an influence on such musicians as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Willie Mae toured with Guy in Europe between 1965-70. And then there was the love of her life, Johnny Ace. Born John Marshall Alexander, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, an American rhythm and blues singer, he made a string of hit singles in the mid-1950s before dying of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound on Christmas Eve, 1954. He was 25 years old. 'It took a lifetime to get over the hurting in my heart, but I got over it.' Willie Mae Thornton toured with him as well. Jackie Richardson sang one of his songs, "Never Let me Go", which felt more like a moment dedicated to Ms. Thornton than a blues song.
Thanks to YouTube I've been able to listen to old recordings of Ms. Thornton's songs, and she could always attack the lyric; there was never any hesitation. When she sang softly, and she could, you hunkered down to hear the words and the emotions which grew as the song moved from the soft to the hard driving blues. Her voice was remarkable for a long time, but it eventually suffered from the effects of long term drinking. By the end of her life, she was very thin; a face sculpted by life and pain. But she could still attack each lyric without hesitation. I saw a video of her singing 'Ball and Chain', not long before she died, and was moved by the last line of the song, 'Love gonna last for a eternity.' She was 57 when she died in 1984.
Jackie Richardson gave two curtain calls because her audience would not stop standing, yelling and clapping! Life does not get any better than an evening spent with Ms. Richardson.
Go feed your soul!
Big Mama! runs at the Theatre of the National Arts Centre until May 11th, from 7:30 to 9:00 with no intermission.
Read also: Richard Burnett's profile of Jackie Richardson
Sounds like a great show, positive review. But while there is no doubt Big Mama loved men, let us not forget she loved women. As Jackie Richardson herself says of Thornton, "She also made it very clear that while she had some love for men, it was the women in her life she knew had her back.” MORE:ReplyDelete