I’m a big fan of — among a few other things, bourbon included — the history of blues music, and the artists who helped create it and carry it through time so that we can still enjoy this uniquely American classical music.
In a couple of my first posts, I highlighted classic artists Billie Holiday and Big Joe Turner, two of my favorites.
While I was looking for material on Big Mama Thornton recently, I found a YouTube video of a 1983 TV show from PBS titled “Three Generations of the Blues,” featuring Sippie Wallace, Thornton and Jeannie Cheatham.
I was familiar with all three. I had rediscovered Wallace when Bonnie Raitt made some appearances with her in the 1970s. But her blues life began long before that.
Sippie Wallace, born in 1898, was one of the earliest blues singers, performing in tent shows as a teenager, and one of the first blues recording artists, beginning in 1923. She was known as a blues shouters, and wrote many of the songs she performed. She was one of many early blues singers who were women, a fact that often gets overlooked in favor of the more testosterone-powered music that came later.
Wallace pretty much dropped out of blues in the late ‘20s, and didn’t really record again until 1966, when she cut the album “Women Be Wise,” with Roosevelt Sykes and Little Brother Montgomery on piano. You may be most familiar with her when Bonnie Raitt began to perform with her in the 1970s. She was 86 when this show was filmed — still full of music, humor and vitality.
Two years after this film, in 1986, Wallace died on her 88th birthday.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, born in 1926, and once billed as the “new Bessie Smith,” is probably best known for recording the R&B-flavored “Hound Dog” a few years before Elvis Presley turned it into a giant rock ‘n’ roll hit.
I’ll digress here for a minute to point out that “Hound Dog” was written especially for Thornton by the barely out-of-their-teens and soon-to-be songwriting wizards of blues, R&B and pop — Jerry Lieber and Mike Stiller. Their body of work is amazing.
Thornton is also known for writing and recording her unreleased “Ball ‘n’ Chain,” which was ultimately more associated with Janis Joplin. Thornton died just about a year after this show, at the age of 57.
Thornton performed off and on with Jeannie Cheatham, who with her Sweet Baby Blues Band, represented a more contemporary approach in terms of having a swinging, horn-fueled band, but gave no quarter in offering tough, down-home blues.
There are three short segments in this concert, with both Wallace and Thornton performing relatively short sets. Cheatham takes over for a rousing set, then brings out Wallace and Thornton for an enthusiastic finale. It was all filmed in Solano Beach, Calif., in 1983.
It’s a lot of fun to watch some fine blues history, especially when it’s filled with great voices and good times.