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Willie Mae's grab-you-in-the-gut blues
June 20, 2008 12:24 AM   Subscribe

Elvis rode to fame on one of her covers and Janis got rich on her signature song, but you haven't truly heard Hound Dog or Ball & Chain until you've experienced Big Mama Thornton belting them out. A seminal blues figure who could play the harp with the best of them, she was true original. In her heyday, Willie Mae was a 6-foot tall, 350-pound, gun-toting crossdresser who led a rough and colorful life and took no guff whatsoever. Emaciated but still powerful, she gives a final raw and expressive performance of Ball & Chain and Hound Dog shortly before her death in 1984.

Orig. 1953 Peacock 78RPM of Hound Dog sound only; the Elvis version came out in '56.

And two more clips from 1971:
Rock Me
Early in the Morning
posted by madamjujujive (21 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
Love this post -- thanks a lot. I plan to pore through it over the weekend.

This album, in which she sings with Muddy Waters' band, is required listening.
posted by hifiparasol at 12:44 AM on June 20, 2008


Oh this is GOOD. I always adore finding out things like this that I feel I should have already known to begin with. Seems that I have another artist to try and add to my music collection.

Thank you for the post, madamjujujive!
posted by Stunt at 1:01 AM on June 20, 2008


Oh, harp, I get you. I was kind of expecting Big Mama to sit down and start dancing with her fingers on the strings of a... you know, real harp.
posted by Laotic at 1:21 AM on June 20, 2008


Wow, I had absolutely no idea. Her collection method is every contractor's fantasy.

The harmonica playing was gorgeous, what a sound.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 1:27 AM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Great post. And that Panache Report website is definitely worth a bookmarkin'.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:07 AM on June 20, 2008


mjj, great to see you postin' the blues again 'round these parts! Cheers!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:23 AM on June 20, 2008


And madame, here's a coupla blues stanzas you've inspired me to write:

Wanna tell you 'bout a lady
they call her madame juju jive,
I wanna tell you 'bout a lady
they call her madame juju jive,
If she asked me for the wheel,
You know I sure would let her drive!

She's one of Metafilter's shining lights,
her posts are always good,
She's one of Metafilter's shining lights,
her posts are always good,
Now people go and check out her own blog
You know I really think you should!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:31 AM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I gotta say that in the last minute of the YouTube Hound Dog clip, "Stop Making Sense" comes to mind. Great stuff.
posted by tfmm at 3:53 AM on June 20, 2008


That sure is the worlds best hound dog. Thanks madamjujujive.
posted by shothotbot at 5:40 AM on June 20, 2008


Willie Mae was a 6-foot tall, 350-pound, gun-toting crossdresser

But then, who isn't?
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:28 AM on June 20, 2008


Metafilter: a 6-foot tall, 350-pound, gun-toting crossdresser.
posted by toastchee at 7:42 AM on June 20, 2008


Wow...she is awesome!
posted by toastchee at 7:42 AM on June 20, 2008


When she needed money, allegedly, she was known to strut in the record company and demand, "Motherf**kers, where is my money?"

I officially have a new hero. Thank you.
posted by SassHat at 8:30 AM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


i have often thought that no other person's smile is so satisfying to see as willie mae's.

thanks, madamejujujive. great post!
posted by CitizenD at 8:41 AM on June 20, 2008


What a kickass voice and personal style! She's a marvelous American treasure.
posted by hojoki at 9:12 AM on June 20, 2008


thanks for reminding me! (and that Panache link is pure gold)
posted by Wilder at 9:58 AM on June 20, 2008


Thanks for posting. Blues music has influenced more popular music than any other style of music and watching these clips leaves no doubt why. It is a truly American tradition and Big Mama Thornton was one of the best. Thanks again - MORE BLUES!!
posted by j.p. Hung at 10:17 AM on June 20, 2008


Thanks, mjjj. This is a great post.

Not to take away from Big Mama, because she's amazing in her own right, but one of my favorite stories about Leiber and Stoller, the guys who wrote "Hound Dog" and a ton of other wonderful songs, is that Stoller had been in Europe and was coming home on the Andrea Doria when it sank. When Mike Stoller finally got to New York, Jerry Leiber was waiting at the dock for he and his wife with a satin jacket and the news that "Hound Dog" had become a number one hit.

Mike said, "Willie Mae's version is number 1?"

Jerry, "No, some guy named Elvis."

Mike, "Elvis who?"
posted by sleepy pete at 10:23 AM on June 20, 2008


Er, I should say, L & S allegedly wrote "Hound Dog". Who the hell knows with the songwriting business.
posted by sleepy pete at 10:26 AM on June 20, 2008


Thanks for another good one, Madam J. I got lucky in the summer of 71 with a press pass to The Ann Arbor Blues Festival... an embarrassment of riches featuring Big Momma Thornton, Buddy Guy, Howlin Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor, Walter (Shakey) Horton and my hero, Son House, who closed the show. Johnny Winter was there and he did an impromptu jam with Buddy Guy, but he mostly just hung out backstage and grooved.

The main thing I remember about Big Momma Thornton is her drum set. She just kind of vanished from stage front and played the drums for 10 or 15 minutes.

But the best thing, even though we were in two different worlds, was when I got separated from my people at the end and crossed paths with Son House. For all practical porpoises, I told him that I loved him, and he said that he had to get back to the shed.
posted by Huplescat at 5:09 PM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Once upon a time... in 1972 or so, I applied to be a waitress at Alice's Revisited, a folk and blues club in Chicago. Being an 18-year old local suburban kid who was learning to appreciate my blues heritage, I had seen a few of the blues greats when they played places I could get into (e.g., Howling Wolf at a high school dance, Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells at the YMCA skating rink).

But the night I tried out waitressing at Alice's, Big Mama Thornton was on the stage. She was like the goddess Kali with a presence that reached across the room. She sang so fiercely it was literally awesome. I have known few women with that presence since.

I never took the job, and moved out west soon after, but I'm glad to have been there that night. Thanks for posting this for Mama. It is good to hear her voice.
posted by fellene at 3:14 PM on June 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


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