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.