Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"You Sing It, Jerry. You Show Big Mama How It Goes."

If you've never looked up Big Mama Thornton on the internet, you've probably missed this video of her with Buddy Guy, from an unnamed 1964 television show. The song really swings, the set is charming, and everybody looks and sounds great.

The title of this week's post comes from a line in Leiber & Stoller's autobiography Hound Dog, a terrific read.

In 1952, Leiber and Stoller, who were only 18 years old at the time, were invited by their friend Johnny Otis (musician and entrepreneur, among other things) to his garage where Big Mama Thornton was rehearsing with a band. Otis had been commissioned by Don Robey, owner of Peacock Records, to find a hit for Big Mama, and so he called Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The teenagers had written some RnB hits already, including "Kansas City."

When they heard Big Mama sing, they were blown away by the power of her voice. Johnny Otis asked  if they had a song that would suit her. They had to admit they didn't, but said they would "in a few minutes." According to the book, they ran back to Stoller's parents's house and, true to their word, whipped up a song in no time flat. They returned to the garage with "Hound Dog."

As Stoller played it for them on the piano, Big Mama snatched the page of lyrics out of Leiber's hand and "began to croon." It was Leiber who dared to tell her that she wasn't singing it properly. The vocal was supposed to have growl and she was treating it like a ballad. Big Mama's attempts to intimidate the teenage songwriter went nowhere; Leiber stood his ground, much to his own surprise and the amusement of the band.

Johnny Otis, who was actually behind the drum kit, suggested Leiber sing it for Big Mama. She was ready to enjoy his complete failure at the blues, but it turned out he's got a good voice, and after only a few lines she suddenly understood the "rough-and-tough of the song and, just as important, the implicit sexual humour." They cut the record the next day, "a masterpiece."

Well, folks, I got the list of musicians wrong on the radio. There's nobody playing piano on the version I played. There's a discrepancy between the Wikipedia entry for this song and Leiber and Stoller's autobiography. Surprise, surprise.

The book credits Big Mama Thornton with the vocals, Pete Lewis on guitar, Johnny Otis on drums, and does not mention who played the bass. The Wiki article for the 1953 Peacock Records release of "Hound Dog" includes the name of a bass player (Albert Winston), but also a pianist and another drummer, though the anonymous Wiki-author does know that it was Otis playing on "Hound Dog." I don't know; maybe those other musicians played on the b-side.

Curse you, Wiki! So much for accuracy!

Wiki hasn't read the book, but should. They know that Johnny Otis's name appears as one of the writers on the record, but they don't know that he simply lied about it (among other things) to Peacock Records boss Robey. A lawyer was brought in, and the boys' mothers too -- their moms had to sign a new contract for their sons who were underage! So one of Leiber and Stoller's early successes was also a lesson in music business shenanigans.

(All quotes are from Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography. By Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, with David Ritz. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. Pages 57-66.)

The Snark playlist for TUESDAY, AUGUST 3, 2010.
(Artist/SONG/Album, etc.)

Big Mama Thornton -- HOUND DOG -- The Original Hound Dog: From the Peacock Archives (1986, Ace Records UK) [orig. 1953, Peacock]
Deadbeat -- NIGHT STEPPING -- Roots & Wire (2008, Wagon Repair)

Nick Lowe -- SHAKE THAT RAT -- Jesus Of Cool reissue (2008, Yep Rock) [orig. 1978, Radar Records]
Balkan Beat Box -- LOOK THEM ACT -- Blue Eyed Black Boy (2010, Nat Geo Music)
Jake & The Leprechauns -- BUSY BEE -- At Midnight, The Birdsong (2010, Landlocked)
Butterflies & Zebras -- ELEVEN EIGHT -- Butterflies & Zebras (2010)
T. Rex -- PLANET QUEEN (acoustic version) -- Electric Warrior reissue (2003, Rhino/WEA) [orig. 1971, Reprise]

U-Roy -- THE HUDSON AFFAIR -- Keith Hudson and Friends: Studio Kinda Cloudy (1994, Trojan) [orig. 1988, Trojan. Recorded in the 70s.]
I-Roy -- SOUND EDUCATION -- Don't Check Me With No Lightweight Stuff, 1972-75 (1997, Blood & Fire) [orig. 1973, Trojan?]
EL-P -- DMSC -- Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 (2010, Definitive Jux)
Yale Strom & Hot Pstromi -- BERDITSHEVER KHOSED -- Absolutely Complete Introduction to Klesmer (2006, )
Leif Vollebekk -- YOU COULDN'T LIE TO ME IN PARIS -- Inland (2009, Nevado Records)
Broken Social Scene -- MEET ME IN THE BASEMENT -- Forgiveness Rock Record (2010, Arts & Crafts)

The Books -- I DIDN'T KNOW THAT -- The Way Out (2010, Temporary Residence)
Chadio -- JB's BEATJACK -- Stolen Moments (2010, Neferiu)
Chrissy Crowley -- THE CHISHOLM INFLUENCE -- Atlantic Standards: Kitchen Party (2010, Rhino Canada)
The Budos Band -- BUDOS DIRGE -- The Budos Band III (2010, Daptone)

Harry Beckett -- RISE & SHINE -- The Modern Sound of Harry Beckett (2008, On-U Sound)
Ruth Brown -- 5-10-15 HOURS -- Atlantic Rhythm & Blues, Volume 1, 1947-52 (1990, Atlantic/WEA) [orig. 1952]
Casiokids -- FOT I HOSE -- Topp Stemning På Lokal Bar (2010, Polyvinyl)

Fat Freddys Drop -- THE RAFT -- Dr. Boondigga & The Big BW (2009, The Drop)

Thanks for listening!

Casiokids are still from Bergen, Norway. Not from Copenhagen, Denmark, which is what I keep saying into the microphone. Sorry, Casiokids. They're coming to downtown Detroit on Thursday, August 26, 2010. At the Magic Stick. Tickets are only $8.

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