Listen to this track by underappreciated blues and rock architect Big Mama Thornton. It’s “Ball and Chain”, a cut that Thornton wrote in the early 1960s, recorded by the end of that decade and can be heard on the Ball And Chain compilation album. The song provided the runway for her resurgence as a performer at that time, too.
This particular rendition was recorded for public television in 1970, including Buddy Guy and his band behind a very formidable Thornton. The two artists had worked together on live shows in Europe in the mid-sixties, the musical rapport they create here perhaps indicating how simpatico they are. During her intro, Thornton mentions Janis Joplin who also had massive success with this song, inspired as she was by the elder singer’s powerful and heart-wrenching original version. Joplin would later invite Thornton to open shows for her.
Yet, Thornton was the pioneer while Joplin trod her path. This being the music industry, and being our world in general, that path was fraught with perils for someone like Big Mama Thornton. The first casualty was her own fame, or lack thereof.
It was her recording of Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog” that gained her a massive hit in 1952. But once Elvis Presley got a hold of it a few years later, that version was largely eclipsed. The same could be said of “Ball And Chain”, a song that many, many people still associate strictly with the aforementioned Janis Joplin, who performed it at Monterrey Pop Festival and kickstarted her career. In this, Thornton never really received the credit for her contributions, and was denied a signature song of her own. This is true but for those who were in the know, including Presley and Joplin who took her material and made their own careers out of it, but only because they were fans themselves.
Who knows what forces kept her from fame as achieved by her admirers? Well, I imagine a number of people know, and can draw from their own personal experience to prove it. Despite her singular talent, Thornton was never a streamlined personality for the mainstream. She didn’t have Presley’s looks. She didn’t capture the zeitgeist like Janis Joplin. She didn’t play ball in terms of the mainstream culture, either, refusing to tone down the heavy doses of testosterone in her own performances and modelling a black feminist persona well ahead of the time when that was expected or welcome in most circles. At the time, and perhaps still, these were unforgivable flaws, particularly for an openly gay black woman operating in a white male-dominated industry that demanded that women artists stay in their lanes. She was the original nasty woman.
Listen to this cut, which finds Thornton at the height of her powers. By 1970, she’d seen many peaks and valleys in her career, and the performance here reflects all of that experience. The band behind her are like acolytes to a high priestess, including an almost reverent Buddy Guy offering a restrained and tense accompaniment to go along with the tenor of the song, which is all about being bereft and unable to break free of one’s misery. During a time when blues-rock was becoming too flashy for its own good, laying down solos and acrobatic vocal lines for sheer ego boost value, Thornton reminds us that the blues is, in the end, about telling a story as much as it is about putting on a show. As a performer, you have to get out of the way of that story so that it can be received. She understood that instinctively.
Art of any kind progresses because of the work of those who don’t toe a line, and who follow their own impulses even if they aren’t traditional, polite, or even well-understood. They present themselves as they choose, and that feeds into what they’re able to create for others. Thornton was not shy about who she was, often appearing on stage in men’s clothing, and generally not giving a rat’s ass other than for the music that she channeled through her. Her voice was one of twentieth century music’s most powerful, balanced with perfect control and delivered with seemingly no effort and certainly no formal training. The music just sort of poured out of her naturally.
After many years of live performing, Big Mama Thornton died in 1984 at the age of 57. After many years still, it would take some time for music fans to fully understand the importance of her contribution to the blues and to rock music. This is not just about her formidable voice, but also her courageous personality and raw honesty. These seemed to work against her ability to gain the fame she deserved, but they also became the engine of every performance she laid down.