Big Mama Thornton in Europe

Big Mama Thornton

Willie Mae Thornton (1926-84) was big—“a 6-foot, 300-pound blues singer” is how Ralph Gleason described her after seeing her at the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival—and she had a voice to match. “Hound Dog,” which she recorded in 1952, became her signature piece (and a huge hit for Elvis) and it pops up twice on this 1965 recording, a CD version of the original “In Europe” LP but with five added tracks and a 16-minute interview with label owner/producer Chris Strachwitz. Backed by a group that included Buddy Guy (simply killer on “Sweet Little Angel”) and Big Walter Horton on harp on a couple of tracks (one, a lovely duet with Big Mama), she knocks the stuffing out of 16 numbers, two of them second takes. She also duets with Mississippi Fred McDowell, whose soulful slide guitar draws out her best work. Their reworking of the Memphis Minnie hit, “Me and My Chauffeur” (one of the bonus tracks) and the first Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little School Girl” (with a gender switch) makes one wish they’d collaborated more.