The Gospel of Jackie
Canada’s foremost singer of gospel, jazz and blues, Jackie Richardson, is also one hell of an actress and stars in the critically-hailed musical Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story, opening at the NAC on April 24
By Richard Burnett
(photos courtesy of the NAC except where mentioned)
Jackie Richardson was performing in Beirut in 1975 when the Lebanese Civil War broke out and bombs started blowing up around her hotel.
“We were onstage at the Holiday Inn which at the time was the tallest building in Beirut, and tanks started shooting at each other and the building shook,” says Richardson, who was 28 years old at the time and touring the world with The Platters (or a version thereof). “It was so surreal. Everybody in the rooftop club started screaming and hit the floor before security came in and took us all to our rooms. We were told not to go outside and were stuck in the hotel for a long time.”
Richardson and her bandmates escaped, and would perform across the South Pacific before she returned home to Toronto where her Pennsylvania family had immigrated to when she was just a kid. In fact, Richardson began her career at the age of seven singing in her local church choir.
Kim and Jackie (courtesy Kim Richardson)
Pretty unbelievable when you consider that Richardson went on to wow audiences around the world with her authentically soulful vocals. Jackie’s only child, Juno Award-winning soul singer Kim Richardson of Montreal, didn’t fall far from the tree, and I have long called Jackie and Kim – vocally and professionally – the Cissy and Whitney Houston of Canada. They really are that incredible.
When her daughter Kim was just seven years old, the Richardsons joined a local Toronto community theatre group. “We did that together for three years,” Jackie says, pointedly adding, “I was very interested in acting and it took a long time to persuade people to let me do drama or comedy that didn’t involve singing.”
Then came her Gemini-nominated role in the 1985 prison TV movie Turning to Stone. “That was a career-changer,” Richardson says.
She then went on to star on stage and screen, winning a Dora Mavor Moore Award – also known as the Dora Award and presented annually by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts which honours theatre, dance and opera productions in Toronto – for the musical Cookin’ at the Cookery in 2004.
She was also nominated in 2003 for a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special for the TV movie Sins of the Father (she lost to Angela Bassett in The Rosa Parks Story). “That was such an honour, I was totally elated just to be nominated in that company,” Richardson says. (cont'd)
Jackie as Big Mama
In 1999, Richardson combined her singing and acting chops when she starred in the musical Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story which was conceived of and written by Audrei-Kairen Kotaska for Jackie, who then reprised the role in 2012 for a new and expanded touring production that opens at the NAC Theatre in Ottawa on April 24.
“It’s a big deal for me – as a black woman – to portray her,” Richardson says about Thornton, who wrote the classic songs Ball and Chain (made famous by Janis Joplin) and Elvis Presley’s signature song Hound Dog (credited to songwriters Leiber and Stoller). “She played a big part in the history of the blues and Rock’n’Roll, and I have the privilege of passing on her story to those who don’t know her.”
Richardson adds, “I believe [Thornton] was bisexual and I play her very manly. I wear men’s clothes like she did. The thing about this musical that I’m really loving is that during this whole era when she came up and paid her dues, it was very hard for women. She did what she had to to get by in that man’s world, and she could cuss you out like nobody else. That’s how she survived. 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.”
The hard-drinking Thornton died on July 25, 1984, at the age of 58.
Richardson, now 65, is winning raves for her portrayal of Big Mama. But she’d rather talk about her daughter Kim, who the same week we speak began rehearsals for an all-star Montreal version of the hit Broadway musical Hairspray, which opens in that city’s Theatre St-Denis on June 20 (Kim will play Motormouth Maybelle).
“I’m just so thankful that Kim has been given the opportunity to express her amazing talent,” Jackie says. “She doesn’t take it for granted and she honours that talent. I [also]
keep asking her for lessons! And I tell her I’m serious.”
Kim has long known what audiences have learnt from Jackie’s five decades in the showbiz trenches: Jackie Richardson is nothing less than a national treasure and a living legend.
When I tell it to her, Jackie won’t hear of it.
“That boggles my brains and it’s not for me to say,” Richardson says. “All I know is I just love being alive in this world. What you have today is what you got. What you had yesterday? It’s gone. What are you doing today? What are you doing to make this day better? That’s what life is all about. Today.”
Jackie Richardson stars in the musical Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story, running at the NAC Theatre from April 24 to May 11. Click here for more info and tickets.
The original Big Mama Thornton performing live: