Alabama-born blues singer and drummer Big Mama Thornton is mostly remembered today by many as a footnote in the saga of two famous rock performers. Thornton helped with the lyrics and was the first to record the Leiber-Stoller classic "Hound Dog," several years before it was made famous to rock 'n rollers via pre-Army Elvis Presley's cover version. The original version was a No. 1 R&B hit for on the Peacock label, but would be Thornton's only chart success. A decade or so later, Janis Joplin and her Big Brother and the Holding Company bandmates unleashed a brutally decimating cover of Thornton's "Ball and Chain" as a part of their Cheap Thrills LP.
Meanwhile, after her first hit, Thornton toiled in semi-obscurity; in between the eras of Presley's first success and Joplin, she would record her own first long player while in Europe as part of an annual touring revue, the American Folk Blues Festival. Big Mama Thornton in Europe was released by independent blues and roots music label Arhoolie in 1966.
Recorded in one day at a London studio in the fall of 1965, the band for much of the session was drawn from the Chicago scene, and all regarded as legends today: Buddy Guy on electric lead guitar; '50s Chess sessioneer Fred Below behind the drums; Eddie Boyd on piano and organ; Jimmie Lee Robinson on bass; and Big Walter Horton on harmonica. In addition, Thornton plays drums and harmonica on a couple tracks, and a pair are straight acoustic blues accompanied only by guitarist Fred McDowell.
It would be near-impossible to not make a killer album with those musicians, and they didn't disappoint. Thornton's powerful, rollicking vocal style is more than equal to the task of topping the rhythm section's groove and Guy's stinging leads. She could belt it out, but she shows on this album that she could also pull it back when needed, a lesson clearly absorbed by acolytes such as Janis Joplin. That vocal nuance makes the two tracks with McDowell probably the highlight of the album. Another highlight is that rather than being a pickup session of standard blues covers, more than half of the songs are Thornton originals; both tracks with McDowell are original collaborations.
From what I can tell by comparing a pair of LPs, the album was originally only issued in mono, and when repressed later appeared in a rechanneled stereo version. Luckily, it's not the worst fake stereo ever. While the mono is much more natural sounding, in some ways the harshness of the electronic stereo version gives the music an odd sort of bite -- provided you're not trying to listen to it on headphones, at least.
All these years later, Arhoolie is still in business, still independent, and still helmed by founder Chris Strachwitz, documenting traditional and regional music. Big Mama Thonton in Europe has been issued on CD, and there's even copies of the stereo LP version still available online, along with lots of other very tempting vinyl treasures from their warehouse. (Arhoolie, 1966)