BIG MAMA THORNTON: The Life and Music. Michael Spörke McFarland (2014) Jefferson, NC. (188 pp)
What a great idea for a book! And it begins well for the first thirty-some pages and then falls into a bit of a hole. The author is a German and I suspect that he wrote in his native language, then had it translated. That’s not the problem, although there are a number of “clangers” that should have been picked up by a more knowledgeable editor/proof-reader. On p. 46 there is a photograph of American musos with the caption “Four Chicago bluesmen backstage…” They consist of Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, and Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry! Oops!! There are misspellings and some confusions throughout the text, not a lot, but enough to be noticed by an eagle-eye like myself and many of you.
As I said above, the book begins fairly well despite the fact that ANY such book today is hampered by the departure of so many connections from this mortal coil. A fact of life, I’m afraid. Binnie Willie Mae Thornton was born near Montgomery, Alabama in 1926 into the family of a preacher, one of six children to he and his wife – she died of TB when Willie Mae was thirteen. Secular music was always an outlet and became her job after that, joining up with various traveling shows that worked the South. Singing, dancing, telling jokes, playing drums or harmonica, she managed to survive in a difficult time in the US for all, The Great Depression – shining shoes on the street was her non-musical go-to. Playing in tents and theatres, she gathered up experience eventually ending up in Texas (Houston) where her career slowly took off. Don Robey (Duke/Peacock Records) and Johnny Otis (lots of everything!) were the two people to set her onto a higher level of the Black entertainment world with serious tours and recordings sessions… and hits.
When the book gets this far, the book devolves essentially into a listing of recording sessions and gigs. While her move to California is mentioned, such information is secondary to the recordings/gigs she did until the end or her life. Spörke looses the threads he had picked up in favor of such information, that while not unimportant, looses out on the “life” part of the subtitle. He obviously loves her music and means well, but this book becomes sort of a damp squib regarding Thornton’s life. As I have stated above, this may be the result of fewer and fewer survivors to speak with to fill out the story. Big Mama deserves such a book, but this one only skims the surface and becomes boring with the repeated sessions and gigs with little meat on the bones. Not appropriate for such as she!
Peter B. Lowry THE BLUES TIMES