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Though only one national certified hit came out of their extended working relationship, the time Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton spent at Peacock Records was artistically rewarding if not always commercially fulfilling.

But beyond five years of stellar recordings highlighted by the company’s first chart topper, their partnership also provides the perfect case study for the sometimes uncertain ground artists and record labels had to traverse in the early 1950’s when determining their own musical direction.


I Have To Share My Man
After ten years on the road singing, playing drums, harmonica, dancing and even telling jokes on stage while a featured performer with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue, twenty-four year old Willie Mae Thornton had cut her first record sometime in early to mid 1950 for the stillborn E&W Records in Houston and already there was a stylistic duality at play.

She’d grown up with the blues, Bessie Smith was a childhood favorite of hers and during her time on the road throughout the Nineteen Forties the teenager she was cast as the “next” Bessie Smith because the blues were still one of the two dominant black music styles of the era and the one most likely to find favor with the types who frequented the Southern theaters the revue played.

Yet in 1947 Roy Brown came along singing a new style of music called rock ‘n’ roll and Thornton, by her own account, was an instant convert. Other future rock acts like Billy Wright and Tommy Brown also played with the Hot Harlem Revue during the late 1940’s before Thornton left – over money reportedly, though she’d also had a child which was taken from her due to her lack of a stable upbringing – and wound up relocating in Houston where she continued to explore both musical genres. There she sang at The Eldorado Club for fifty bucks a night and at the same time cut that debut record which was credited to The Harlem Stars… probably a reference to her long stint in the similarly named revue.

She wrote both sides herself and it shows how her interest was already divided. The blues side, Bad Luck Got My Man was backed with a pure rocker, All Right Baby and it was there, even backed by a thin but enthusiastic band, where she really stood out.

Not long after that Don Robey came to see her perform at The Eldorado and promptly hired her away for his own club, the more luxurious Bronze Peacock, and inked her to a five year deal on Peacock Records where, once again, she splits her attention between blues – I’m All Fed Up – and rock… or as the label themselves advertised it – blues and boogie.

The company was founded in the first place to promote Robey’s discovery Gatemouth Brown who was similarly split between the two approaches, and his divided output set a precedent that would initially help Peacock thrive in both markets before the blues field became less profitable as rock’s commercial strength grew exponentially. Once that happened however, artists like Brown and Thornton who’d felt comfortable in both found they were classified as blues, relegating them to what was fast becoming a niche market.

But any thought that Willie Mae Thornton was primarily a blues singer is negated whenever you hear her rock out, such as on Partnership Blues, a song that shows she’s already crafting deep songs with psychological implications and pulsing rhythms.

By The Time He Gets To Me
With its clattering piano boogie, riffing horns and uptempo delivery, Thornton leaves no doubt as to which direction she’s heading here.

This is rambunctious, impatient music designed to get you moving and grooving, storyline be damned. Her voice at this point of her fledgling recording career is a sharp incessant whine, an engine running on high octane fuel rather than the louder growl she’d later develop and it suits both the song and her personality well. She’s fully in control of the rhythm, steering it effortlessly even if at times she has a tendency to try and make it run too fast.

If you pay close attention to the lyrics you may ask yourself why it wasn’t THIS side of the record that she chose for the blues interpretation though because Partnership Blues, aside from simply having that word affixed to the title, is one that seems best suited to the downcast mood of that rival genre.

In it she’s bemoaning the fact that her man is married – making her the “other woman” and him a bigamist – which means she has to “share him” with the unsuspecting wife who is the only innocent person in this entire affair.

Speaking of divided loyalties, she complains what his split allegiances are costing her, as he’s got to provide for his wife before he can spend whatever is left on her, giving this a mercenary quality that doesn’t try glossing over her own avarice.

Yet moral failings aside, what stands out is how effectively Thornton presents her situation. Her lines about sitting by the window and watching her man go by, unable to talk to him or acknowledge his presence, are heartbreaking… as long as you don’t think of the anguish the wife would feel knowing her betrothed is sneaking around on her. But we’re presented this from Thornton’s perspective which is compelling in its own right, as anyone knows when you’re separated from the one you love for any reason you’re bound to suffer.

We’re obviously not condoning any of these “tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive” actions, but the hurt in Willie Mae’s voice is genuine and if the quick pace of it all seems wrong for the situation, maybe it’s designed to throw people off her scent, to put on a happier face to onlookers so they don’t delve into the reasons why she’s sad.

Or maybe it’s simply because she can burn off that frustration with some spirited singing which at times gets a little too far afield, but for the most part sounds raw and exciting.

Speaking of raw and exciting, anyone questioning the decision to place this firmly in the rock camp needs to pay strict attention to the band who need no convincing as to whether it’s appropriate or not.

I Forget About Everything Else
This is the first time we’ll get to mention Joe Scott, a trumpeter who would become the long-time leader of Peacock Records house band and production staff, a solid songwriter and apparently a patient forgiving man for having so many of his compositions stolen by his employer Don Robey, who’d use his Deadric Malone alias on the copyrights.

Scott had just turned twenty six years old when he arranged and recorded Partnership Blues for Thornton, in the process establishing the horn sound that would keep Peacock Records (as well as Duke and Back Beat) viable in the rock field even as many of their artists, including Bobby “Blue” Bland were more firmly rooted in blues.

Here he throws three primary instruments at the wall and waits to see which will stick. The piano doesn’t get a showcase beyond that opening, but that’s enough to establish its presence after which it carries the rhythmic duties along with the drummer. The horns are the primary engine to the track, surging with precision behind Thornton’s vocals, maybe compelling her to speed up her delivery more than necessary but it’s hard to fault their enthusiasm or their effectiveness.

The sax break that follows is raw, lusty and alternately grinding and melodic. The rest of the horns never let up behind the roaring tenor and when Thornton returns they may quiet down a bit but never relinquish their cause.

But if you think they’ll jump back in for the second instrumental break, maybe even have Joe himself blow awhile on trumpet, you’re in for a surprise as an electric guitar – quite possibly Gatemouth Brown himself – jumps into the fray instead giving this a vibrant guttural sound to contrast with the horns. It veers towards distortion early on before settling down but it brings even more edgy excitement to the proceedings… as if it needed the additional pick-me-up after the others went wild the first two-thirds of the record.

With all of the parts meshing nicely, the musical foundation for the record company was set while at the very same session the label had found its most distinctive voice to give the company an identity.

See ‘Em When I Can
It’d take a little awhile for things to start to pay off with these characters, but unlike most of Houston-based labels that had come – and gone – over the past few years, Peacock Records was here to stay, in no small part thanks to Scott and Thornton.

Though eventually the company would become more known for the blues and gospel, Partnership Blues showed they could rock just as well and in Willie Mae Thornton had somebody who could go in either direction. To the wider public, as well as those curating history, she’s largely been reduced to a single record cut during her long stint with the company, but her deeper catalog is full of raw, lively sides that deserve airing.

This might not be the best among them by any means but for someone who was still a relative novice in the studio she already comes off sounding just fine.


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