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E&W 100; 1950



The road to stardom is rarely a smooth one. There are some artists who get spotted early on, signed to a contract and release a hit their first time out, capturing the public’s fancy and then build upon that initial response with each successive release but they’re few and far between.

Most scuffle at first, looking for a break, no matter how small it may be, that might help them on their way.

When they get those chances they not only need to make the most out of them, but they also need to get lucky, for chances are those early opportunities will have very limited possibilities to be widely noticed.

Sometimes though from the smallest of outposts comes someone with talent as big as anyone.


Roll Yourself Away
For someone who had just a single hit in her long career – though it was huge one – Willie Mae Thornton won’t soon be forgotten.

The size of that hit, and the subsequent reworking of it by some cat named Elvis Presley which became an even bigger hit, ensures that Thornton is always going to be a recognizable name in music lore.

Sadly though for most that’s all she’ll ever be – a name that is connected to one record and one other artist and even if that record of hers still gets played and heard by a lot of people as a result it’s doubtful that many of them will look to hear all that much more.

Even her later association to another major white rock disciple, Janis Joplin, comes with strings attached, as Joplin cut a song that Thornton had been singing for years that she’d recorded but never got released, so she didn’t even get to bask in the glow of the sales boost that might’ve come with it.

But while it’s those two songs that form the foundation of her legacy, they’re hardly the only high points of her musical output and it’s the rest of her catalog, starting with All Right Baby cut for what might be the smallest and least significant record label to date in rock ‘n’ roll, that first gave notice that Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was somebody you had to pay attention to.

From the time she was young Thornton used her voice to get out of circumstances that could’ve broken her. She was barely in her teens when she first performed in a club where she worked cleaning out spittoons, stepping in for a singer who was too drunk to go on. Later she was working on a garbage truck when singer Diamond Teeth Mary heard her singing while collecting trash and convinced her to enter a talent contest which she won, using it to head out on the road with a band, playing drums, harmonica, singing, dancing and telling jokes… anything to keep performing.

It’d be a decade before she got to take that next step on that road and cut a record.

All For Myself
Thornton had landed in Houston in 1948 and found a welcoming club scene and a burgeoning recording industry taking place as the blues she’d sung over the past ten years was still viable, but so too was rock ‘n’ roll with its faster tempo, boisterous attitude and rolling rhythms provided largely by horns, all of which suited Thornton’s abilities.

Sometime in 1950 – and the dates beyond that, including where we’re sticking this release, are pure speculation – she cut the first and maybe only single for E&W Records.

An interesting aside, Thornton had a stillborn younger brother who was named E.W. Thornton and since this label has no documentation that can be verified (other than residing on Dallas Street in Houston) is it remotely possible that somehow she just booked a session with Ike Smalley’s band whom she was appearing with at The Eldorado Club in Houston, had it pressed up on her own using that as a label name and used as a form of publicity?

Mmm, maybe not since it’s not credited to her outright, but rather The Harlem Stars, a generic name intended to let people know it which community it was intended for by appropriating the New York neighborhood that was a national stand-in for any African-American endeavor for much of the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Anyway, the one side, Bad Luck Got My Man, was emblematic of her blues upbringing. A decent song utilizing a slower delivery in which she “worries” the vocals but shows she’s got a good voice and an intuitive feel for an arrangement.

But on All Right Baby she takes on a whole new persona, one looking forward, not backwards, fully embracing rock ‘n’ roll and injecting it with a a take-no-prisoners attitude while backed by a churning (if slightly underpowered) band. It may be a little too crude to be hit material, but the twenty four year old woman at the microphone sure was making her own case to be a star right from the start as she comes barreling out of the gate after the stop time horn intro and crude piano boogie, her voice a high-pitched whine that gives off a glowing energy as if it were a live wire sizzling in the dark.

Though the instrumental backing is thin, an alto sax, piano and drums riffing energetically behind her, Thornton’s got a firm grasp on the rhythm, which shouldn’t be too surprising since she also wrote the song and thus knows how it should best be delivered.

The lyrics are mostly cribbed from a thousand and one generic songs – jockeys who know how to ride, her desire for this one guy in particular, the time of day and night they get it on – but she’s treating it all like they’re novel ideas and that goes a long way in making it seem personal, like this guy she’s describing really does exist and isn’t just filling a role from central casting.

When Thornton comes out of a ramshackle sax break which manages to keep the spirit of the song running high and she ratchets up her delivery in response you can feel the band coalescing around her. As she starts repeating the title line their collective enthusiasm is palpable and though it may still be little more than a fairly simplistic song with a common theme and adequate backing, you feel as though you’ve been on a pretty exciting ride and would be more than willing to buy another ticket and take it for another spin.


Love Me In The Morning, Love Me Late At Night
There were certainly hundreds, more likely a few thousand, aspiring rock singers spread out across the country in Nineteen-Fifty, most of whom never got anywhere near a recording studio. Many of those who wished they could wouldn’t have been able to leave much of an impression on you if they catch that break.

But Willie Mae Thornton, with a decade of experience on stages across the South, playing theaters for little pay and no glory, was fully prepared for her shot at what must’ve seemed like the big time.

All Right Baby is by no means a great record but it IS an impressive one for someone stepping into a studio for the first time, putting everything she has into convincing somebody listening that she’s worth taking a chance on. It’s a performance that’s full of personality and shows plenty of ability, at least enough to serve as a calling card for her next stop along that road.

Apparently it worked too, for in a short time she’d be singing in the biggest club in Houston for the man whose record label she would help to put on the map.

The road was getting wider and brighter now and Thornton was soon going to be rolling along it at a a pretty fast clip.


(Visit the Artist page of Big Mama Thornton for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)