Blues icon Thornton inspired Elvis, Janis Joplin

Vancouver Island MusicFest brings Big Mama – The Willie Mae Thornton Story to the Comox Valley the weekend of July 13 and 14.

Big Mama – The Willie Mae Thornton Story comes to MusicFest.

She was gutsy and tough, inspired Elvis and Janis Joplin, and broke ground for women singing the blues, a genre she once described as “nothing but life, good food, good times and good sex.”

Vancouver Island MusicFest brings Big Mama – The Willie Mae Thornton Story to the Comox Valley the weekend of July 13 and 14. Canadian jazz icon, Jackie Richardson, will portray Thornton as she shares moments of her life while performing at a fictional L.A. jazz club in the 1970s.

“I’m a huge blues fan and Big Mama Thornton was one of the best,” says VIMF artistic director/executive producer Doug Cox. “I saw The Willie Mae Thornton Story at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and thought it would be a wonderful way to introduce something a bit different to MusicFest.”

Originally written by Audrei-Kairen Kotaska for a 15-minute Lunchbox Theatre production in Calgary, the story of the legendary Thornton was so well received that director John Cooper convinced the playwright to expand the script to a 90-minute production.

Cooper, who has directed more than 130 productions at theatres across Canada and won three Jessie Richardson Awards for outstanding direction, teaches directing for UBC’s Department of Theatre and Film.

“Big Mama is a metaphor for surviving and overcoming adversary,” he says. “It presents an incredible woman in a man’s world making her art, living her life and remaining positive and creating great things.

“And Jackie is a national treasure. She sings from a special place that is truthful in the moment. She is always amazing but sometimes she’s jaw-dropping amazing.”

Willie Mae Thornton left her Alabama home when she was 14 to make her way as a singer/songwriter. Over time, her amazing voice and stage presence captivated audiences. She was the first person to record Hound Dog, was nominated for the Blues Music Awards numerous times and, in 1984, was inducted into The Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. Her song, Ball ‘n’ Chain, later recorded by Janis Joplin, is on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

But the music industry isn’t easy at the best of times and, for much of her life, Thornton, who was born in 1926, was a black woman working in a man’s world.

“She was one of the toughest of the tough,” says Jackie Richardson. “She suffered pain and hard times and broke ground for my generation and later generations of women in the music industry. In order to hold her own and make a strong stand, she learned to fight, drink and cuss just like the men she worked with. But that came with a price. She was only 57 when she died in 1984.”

A Canadian singer and actress, Richardson has received the Gemini Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Program for The Gospel According to the Blues and the Dora Award for the musical Cookin’ at the Cookery. She’s also been nominated for the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television Gemini Award and the NAACP Image Award for Best Actress in a Television Movie.

“I don’t try to sound like Willie Mae in Big Mama,” she explains. “Willie Mae had a unique voice and no one can replicate that. My goal is to figure out what she was like inside, to understand and portray her spirit.

“We first performed Big Mama in 1999,” she adds. “Now 13 years later, I get to take my life experience and re-address the role with a much different perspective. That’s been a wonderful bonus for me.”

Performing onstage with Richardson are music director Ron Casat on keys, Kevin Belzner on drums and Tim Williams on guitar. Casat and Williams were part of the original production.

Like many VIMF performers, the cast of Big Mama will also participate in workshops and other onstage events.

“Big Mama is a celebration of a strong, powerful woman,” says Cooper. “Willie Mae experienced difficulties in her life and struggled to overcome them. It’s an incredible story of perseverance and strength. Every time I see Big Mama, my spirit is lifted.”

Paula Wild is a published author and regular contributor to the Comox Valley Record’s arts and entertainment section.

Just Posted

‘Beauty amongst such tragedy:’ B.C. photographer captures nature’s trifecta

David Luggi’s photo from a beach in Fraser Lake shows Shovel Lake wildfire, Big Dipper and an aurora

Glacier View residents take a ride on the river

Ground Search and Rescue guides floaters on Puntledge

Brewing up some community engagement

Insp. Tim Walton says goodbye to the Comox Valley

Vancouver Island woman to attempt historic swim across Juan de Fuca Strait today

Ultra-marathon swimmer Susan Simmons to attempt to swim from Victoria to Port Angeles and back

‘We will not forget:’ Thousands attend funeral fallen Fredericton officers

Hundreds of officials marched in the parade, which included massed band, several police motorcycles

BREAKING: Evacuation order issued in Island village due to “risk of falling debris”

Several homes in Zeballos are under an evacuation order as wildfires continue… Continue reading

Lions give up late TD in 24-23 loss to Argos

B.C. falls to 3-5, fumbling away last-minute chance in Toronto

Eagle tree cut down legally a 1st for B.C. city

Planned eagle preserve ‘a first for City of Surrey’

Smoky skies like a disappearing act for sights, monuments around B.C.

Haze expected to last the next several days, Environment Canada said

Canadians react to death of former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan at age 80

Nobel Peace Prize-winning former UN leader died early Saturday following a short illness

44 drownings so far this year in B.C.

Lifesaving Society urging caution to prevent deaths while on lakes, oceans and in pools

Some of B.C.’s air quality levels worse than Jodhpur, India

Okanagan, northern B.C. seeing some of the worst air quality globally

VIDEO: Ground crews keep a close eye on largest B.C. wildfire

Originally estimated to be 79,192 hectares, officials said more accurate mapping shows smaller size

Most Read