Ever since Mamie Smith broke the color line in the fledgling record industry some 60 years ago with "Crazy Blues," there's never been a shortage of female vocalists recording blues or blues-based material in a jazz or pop context.
From the classic blues of Bessie Smith and Ida Cox to the heart-felt torch songs of Billie Holiday and later Dinah Washington, to the more contemporary stylings of Esther Phillips, women have always had their say and way with the blues.
The one exception is the raw, earthier sound of electric blues. The music that traveled north with the migration of job seekers during and after World War II always has been dominated by men. Had they lived, some female singers such as Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie probably would have had no trouble adapting to an urban blues band; their background and temperament seem well suited to the demands of electric blues.
But until recently only one woman has held her own in the field -- Big Mama Thornton, who will be appearing tomorrow night in a rare East Coast performance with B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland at Wolf Trap. Thornton is, quite simply, one of a kind.
For years Big Mama -- her prodigious proportions more than justify the nickname -- played drums and harmonica in her own trio or on tour with Johnny Otis. In a voice that always betrayed her southern religious upbringing, she sang songs that eventually sold millions of copies -- for other musicians.
She cut "Hound Dog" in 1953, right about the time Elvis was graduating from high school. Her own "Ball and Chain" was the centerpiece of her West Coast repertoire when Janis Joplin turned it into one of her biggest hits. As for Thornton's own recordings, the best of them were made in the '60s for the small Arhoolie label in California.
For a while, with the singer looking frail and in ill health, it appeared that Thornton might not record again. But a few of her live performances have just been issued as part of the three-record collection, "San Francisco Blues Festival" (Solid Smoke 8011).
The good news is that Thornton is apparently in much better health today than she was two summers ago when she was recovering from injuries suffered in a car accident. She performed at the San Francisco Festival, seated, her harmonica in one hand, a microphone in the other.
If the festival recording doesn't fully capture the poignancy of her performance, it still goes a long way in documenting her enduring appeal. These songs are by no means definitive versions. "Fo' Day Blues," "Ball and Chain" and Jimmy Reed's "You Don't Have to Go" have all been heard to better advantage elsewhere. Nor is Thornton's backup band particularly inspiring. Apart from pianist Mark Naftalin, the band frequently betrays the little rehearsal time it was given.
But through it all, Thornton's voice takes on the singular tone that has marked her best work -- a tone alternately defiant and humorous, strong and weary, wise and impulsive. Those qualities run through these performances as naturally as the applause that interrupts them, and they more than compensate for the vocal power and weight Thornton has lost over the years.
The heir apparent to Thornton's throne is Koko Taylor, the Chicago blues belter who has just released her third album on the Alligator label, "From the Heart of a Woman" (A14724). In the past, some critics have compared Taylor unfavorably with older blues singers who have demonstrated greater range and finesse -- an exercise akin to stacking John Lee Hooker up against Paul Robeson.
Well, it's true that Taylor's recordings have been confined to a rather rigid 12-bar Chicago-blues format. She does have a big, raunchy voice with all the requisite power to make her a convincing blues shouter. Up until now, most of the material she has recorded has required plenty of muscle, a lot of stamina and not much else. With her new album, though, Taylor has chosen a more diverse and challenging course. The gospel inflections that have always colored her delivery are now given free rein on a number of stirring soul tunes, particularly "Something Strange is Going On" and Etta James' trademark "I'd Rather Go Blind." Another delightful departure from the hard blues long associated with Taylor is a sassy, swinging version of Dinah Washington's "Blow Top Blues."
The balance of the album is essentially comprised of hard-core Chicago blues, given strong, straightforward arrangements and powered by veterans such as A.C. Reed and Sammy Lawhorn. Beyond giving Taylor some much-needed room to expand and develop her talents, her new album should help broaden her audience and silence her critics.
The Houston blues singer Lucinda Williams has taken an even more wide-ranging approach to the music on her latest release, "Happy Woman Blues" (Folkways FTS 31067). Her first album was a wonderful potpourri of traditional sounds. The lyrics of Robert Johnson, Memphis Minnie and Sleepy John Estes happily co-mingled with the music of A.P. Carter and Hank Williams on "Ramblin' on My Mind" (Folkways 31066).
Her sophomore effort, however, consists solely of original material, and much of it is quite good. With a voice that still bears an affecting country lilt and a writing style that frequently brings to mind the southwestern romances and tales of Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams is clearly a musician worth hearing.