Big Mama!
National Arts Centre Theatre
April 27 to May 11, 2013

The story of the blues parallels the story of jazz for many years. Both originally came out of the black experience, both were referred to as race music for many years, and both heavily influenced each other.

Jackie Richardson as blues singer Willie Mae Thornton (photo by Tim Matheson)
Jackie Richardson as blues singer Willie Mae Thornton (photo by Tim Matheson)

So the story of Willie Mae Thornton, the blues singer, born at the beginning of the jazz era and living through almost the entire 20th century – that's a story that jazz fans can enjoy and understand, especially as portrayed by Toronto jazz vocalist Jackie Richardson.

Richardson's characterization of Thornton was full of charm and rage. With a voice that could blow off barn doors and an intense physical presence, she was mesmerizing. From the moment she strode on stage at the matinée performance I attended, she had the audience wrapped up in her story and in her music.

Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and a worn checked over-shirt, she was Big Mama Thornton, a force of nature. And for the next 90 minutes she told Thornton's story, from her birth in 1926 as one of seven children of a Baptist preacher until her death in 1984, and sang the songs that made her famous.

Richardson is an actress, with a long list of credits at the NAC, in Toronto, and across Canada. She's also a well-known jazz singer, who has played with Canadian jazz musicians ranging from Joe Sealy to Peter Appleyard to Oliver Jones to Guido Basso. (Those who saw Sealy's Africville Stories show in Ottawa in 2012 won't easily forget her; her voice easily filled Christ Church Cathedral and brought Sealy's lyrics to blazing life.) The role of Thornton was originally written for her by playwright Audrei-Kairen in 1999, and then expanded and toured across Western Canada. The play was revived last year by the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, whose production came to the NAC.

It's essentially a revue, set up as a Christmas Eve show in a roadhouse in the early 70s, with Thornton backed by three musicians on drums, keyboards, and guitar. She sings – sometimes slow and mournful, sometimes bright and up-tempo, sometimes gut-bucket down and dirty blues – and she talks about her life and what her music meant to her.

“The blues is my best friend … the blues is life … the blues is my release, my train to glory”, she says. She mythologizes her life, talking about how she fought back when a man tried to feel her up when she was 14, and how she learned from that that she could always stand up for herself. She tells how she would never let the smile slip off her face, even when she had no place to stay: “the blues is about misery, but it's also about dealing with those things and living through them.”

She sings George Gershwin's “Summertime” in a simple husky voice, living the melancholy fully and reaching deep into herself for the deep bass notes that add authenticity. She tells the story of how the Rolling Stones found blues legend Muddy Waters painting the walls of a recording studio in Chicago.

She recounts how she created the definitive version of “(You ain't nothing but a) Hound Dog”, adding the whooping and the hollering and the dog noises to Leiber and Stoller's song, and ending up with a major hit on the race charts – but it was Elvis Presley who got the fame and the money for crossing that song over to the white audiences.

Thornton also wrote and recorded “Ball and Chain”, which became a big hit for her, but a much bigger hit for Janis Joplin. At least in that case Joplin asked Thornton's permission first, and Thornton recalls her much more fondly.

And those were the good times. Thornton also recounts how her lover played Russian Roulette with a gun at a club show.

But ultimately in this production – and in Thornton's life – the music is preeminent. “The only true happiness in life is to work yourself doing something that you love,” she says, and the show ends with two triumphant numbers: “Sassy Mama” (written by Thornton's younger sister for her) and “All Night Long”.

Richardson turned that last number into a call and response, gospel revival, audience participation number. And by that point, the audience was so used to clapping and singing along and hollerin' a bit that it just seemed natural that everybody just stretched out and enjoyed the music … and kept enjoying a long stretched-out coda to that song, including a standing ovation and then more singing after that. It was a great upbeat ending to the story of a fascinating woman who never let life push her down for long.

But that last song was the first time that I felt that the other musicians really participated in the kind of jamming that was characteristic of blues singing (or jazz music) of that time. There was some tasty steel guitar in a few places, a few keyboard riffs, and the music was a good accompaniment, but the instrumentals (as opposed to Richardson's vocals) always seemed a bit too tame.

Perhaps that's inevitable in a theatrical rather than a musical production, where you have to worry about lighting cues and keeping to the script – instead of being able to take off and improvise. But later that evening I listened to the Shuffle Demons' latest album, and I imagined Richardson playing those tunes with the Demons' anarchistic wildness behind her. Now that would be a show!

But what you have playing right now at the NAC Theatre is some fine vocal blues and a story that ranges from heart-warming to heart-wrenching, and is well worth seeing.

    – Alayne McGregor