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In a recording career lasting two decades the legacy of Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton has been reduced to just one huge hit with enduring impact while the rest of her work is discarded altogether… everywhere but here that is.

Here we like the rest of the story… if anything we’re MORE interested in the other “lesser” songs because they haven’t been talked about much and in some cases haven’t even been heard by most people.

But beyond simply being altruistic by nature we also like them because they’re damn good in their own right like this one from early in her career which showed that Thornton had a forceful presence from the very start which put her female rock peers to shame.


Never Done You No Wrong
Take a look – or a listen – to the breakthrough female vocalists in rock’s first four years.

Chubby Newsom, who scored the first national hit by a female rock act, unsurprisingly played up sex in her songs, pulling in the male listeners with what she said and how she said it on record just as she’d been doing on stage by the way she shook her voluptuous hips.

Annie Laurie was one of the most prolific recording stars of this era and much more modest in her songs and her appearance, using a well-measured delivery that wasn’t that far removed from the approach of ladies in other genres where selling the content using a pleasant voice was deemed far more important than selling an image.

Ruth Brown may have been coaxed into setting aside her aspirations for pop stardom and singing standards with lush accompaniment, but while she had a natural affinity for rhythm and could certainly sound bawdy in the process, she was also playing coy much of the time or expressing sheer joy or heartbreak when she let herself go.

Margie Day was at times more aggressive in her mindset, but her voice was hardly threatening as she sang about matters of sex. Anyway you get the idea. Women were typically using standard techniques of their gender to put their songs across even if the music – and the manner in which they sang – were firmly rooted in a more rhythmic construct which marked it as something different than pop, blues or jazz.

But here comes Willie Mae Thornton with Let Your Tears Fall Baby, a song in which she is the one “left all alone” by her man, and yet it is Thornton who commands the song with an unshakable will and a delivery which somehow sounds almost ferocious by nature even though she’s not leveling threats to anybody.

Like all genres, rock ‘n’ roll needed diversity to thrive and with Thornton’s elevation to the varsity squad they now had another potent weapon at their disposal… the female who could vocally out slug most any man.


If You Really Want To Cry
Though the song itself is somewhat slight by nature, it does have a refreshing perspective that has to be fully credited here and that’s how Thornton has flipped the script on her deserting man through sheer determination alone, refusing to beg him to return and trusting that his nights without her will be enough to get him to regret his decision to leave in the first place.

It might not be a risky move, after all she’s already lost him so what more does she have to lose by staying away, but it IS indicative of the shifting viewpoints rock was now bringing to the table.

Whereas a more traditional plot would have Thornton at the end of her rope, here she simply gives her ex enough rope to hang himself with, or something to that effect, and sits back confidently waiting for the first sign he’s having second thoughts at which point she lets him have it. She’s not closing the door completely on their eventual reconciliation by any means, I think she wants him back just as much as he wants to return to her, but she’s making sure that if they do get back together she will be the one wearing the pants in the relationship.

That’s pretty devious, even though it’s not explored nearly enough as she repeats the same stanza a second time rather than further examining the changes that may be on the horizon.

What makes Let Your Tears Fall Baby work so well, even with limited details beyond the basic set-up, is how in control Thornton is – of her voice, of her emotions, of her position in the broken relationship. All of this is conveyed by attitude alone, the way she growls the vocals as if she knew damn well that was going to be the only chance she had to release this pent up frustration and if she didn’t take advantage of it by spitting out the lines with venomous intent, then she’d be forced to ingest that venom herself.

By now she might’ve built up an immunity to it, especially if her guy was dismissive of her for awhile before breaking it off with her, but surely it feels better to poison him with it than swallow it again herself and feel queasy about it all day long.

But it’s not just the snarling demeanor she possesses which makes this come off so well, it’s also her singing ability itself. Thornton may not have a pretty voice, but it’s a highly developed one, featuring a strong tone, great rhythmic instincts and a subtle understanding of melody that other singers, male or female, who were presented with a song hinting at retribution would likely jettison.

Not Thornton who is fully under control here which makes her message all the more powerful and the record all the more enjoyable, even if you were on the receiving end of her bluntly authoritative discourse.


You Will Always Remember…
While a background in the blues may have contributed to her more assertive reading – and unfortunately in the process has Thornton perpetually mislabeled as a blues artist herself – the backing music by Bill Harvey’s band is pure rock ‘n’ roll with its boogie piano, churning horns and gritty sax solo.

Though none of it – the song or the arrangement – is breaking new ground in rock by any means, Let Your Tears Fall Baby remains so tightly in the pocket in every way that you tend to simply appreciate the performances rather than focus on the whiff of it having a generic construct.

Thornton shines, the band doesn’t fail her and the listener now can feel reasonably confident that there’s yet another avenue that rock ‘n’ roll might corner the market on going forward – the brash independent woman.

Rather than feel threatened by this, fellas, it might be a good idea to nod along respectfully since any resistance will likely result in a black eye anyway.


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