Big Mama Thornton and the Blues Prelude to Heavy Music

So it's been a number of years since we first came across these recordings on YouTube. Most everyone is familiar with Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog". Presley reworked the song, "Hound Dog", originally written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, into a song about an actual dog. Big Mama Thornton recorded the original version in Los Angeles on 13 Aug 1952. It's much darker, much rawer, and typically appeals to those who aren't satisfied with simple pop sensibilities.

Big Mama Thornton's version of "Hound Dog":

Research that we've done to this point gives us the understanding that Leiber and Stoller were actually angered by Presley's sanitized version of their original creation. They were very happy with how Big Mama Thornton captured their song about a woman lamenting the dog of a man she'd previously entertained. I happen to believe this is a better performance of "Hound Dog" than Thornton's 1952 recording. These three YouTube recordings actually originate from a 1965 German television show called "American Folk Blues Festival" that was meant to showcase American Rhythm and Blues music to the people of (then West) Germany. It's sometimes hard to remember that what we call "Blues" today, was called "Rhythm and Blues" then. Today's R&B, short for Rhythm and Blues, bears almost no resemblance to the "Rhythm and Blues" of 50 and 60 years ago. The show (and therefore these YouTube videos) include many Blues greats:

  • Big Mama Thornton,
  • Buddy Guy, (playing electric guitar)
  • John Lee Hooker,
  • Walter "Shakey" Horton,
  • J. B. Lenoir,
  • Doc Ross,
  • Eddie Boyd (playing piano)

I can only imagine how great it would be to get a copy of the whole thing. This particular version of the Down Home Shakedown appears to have been reworked and restored according to the credits at the end.

The Down Home Shakedown:

Here's the last piece we could find on YouTube of the original airing in West Germany in 1965. What's also interesting are the images on the walls behind the players. They're pictures of places in the urban Deep South of the United States in the 1960s and do a great job of conveying the poverty from which most Black American Blues performers came.

Walter "Shakey" Horton: "Shakey's Blues":

As Big Mama Thornton got to her last years of life, she wasted away, becoming very thin from liver damage related to alcohol abuse, and in her latest performances she was merely a shadow of the woman we see here in 1965. What calls Big Mama and the period Rhythm and Blues to being part of the pedigree of heavy music is both in her vocal expression, the choice of lyrical material, and finally in her stage presence. Wikipedia's entry says this about Thornton:

"...She often enters call-and-response exchanges with her band, inserting confident and notably subversive remarks. Her play with gender and sexuality set the stage for later rock 'n' roll artists' own plays with sexuality.

Feminist scholars such as Maureen Mahon often praise Thornton for subverting traditional roles of African American women. She added a female voice to a field that was dominated by white males, and her strong personality transgressed patriarchal and white supremacist stereotypes of what an African American woman should be. This transgression was an integral part of her performance and stage persona."

Crossing gender boundaries in music is not uncommon today. One has to go back to the 1950s and the early 1960s and consider the culture and in doing so what a heretical act gender bending represented at the time. It was considered "avant garde" when Alice Cooper did it 20 years later in the 1970s. He could only do it because much of the groundwork had already been laid.

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