Blues You Can Use - Big Mama Thornton: A Tale of Two Luthers

THIS MONTH’S SPOTLIGHT FALLS ON A TRACK BY ONE OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT FEMALE blues artists of all time, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton.
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THIS MONTH’S SPOTLIGHT FALLS ON A TRACK BY ONE OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT FEMALE blues artists of all time, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Best known for topping the 1953 Billboard R&B charts with her original recording of “Hound Dog,” her contribution to popular music was woefully overshadowed by the 1956 Elvis Presley version. But Big Mama’s growl and soulful wail became a template for artists like Koko Taylor, Janis Joplin, and Shemekia Copeland, and as a rare female blues harpist, she inspired players like Annie Raines, Gaye Adegbaloloa, and Robin Rogers. Listening to tracks Big Mama cut in 1966 backed by the Muddy Waters Blues Band, I was seized by the constant pulsing of the bass, particularly on “I’m Feeling Alright.” The bass player was exhibiting rare facility with extended triplet runs throughout the groove—and while it bordered on overplaying, it was all right with Muddy.

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Like many music journos, I often use as a source when researching stories; in this case, the site credits Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson as the bass player on the track. As he is obviously known as a guitarist, I thought a crosscheck was in order. “Guitar Jr.” played with Muddy Waters, but his tenure is listed between 1972–79—this recording happened in 1966. As it turns out, Luther “Snake Boy” Johnson (a.k.a. “Georgia Boy”) Luther "Guitar Junior" JohnsonLuther "Snake Boy" Johnson played with Muddy in the mid ’60s, and while his career also focused mainly on guitar, a very detailed discography at lists him as playing bass on those sessions. (Adding to the confusion is the fact that both L.J.s had relocated to Boston at some point, and there is a third blues guitarist named Luther “Houserocker” Johnson—but as it turns out, he was too young.) Special thanks to Michael “Mudcat” Ward and “Monster” Mike Welch of Sugar Ray & the Bluetones for their valuable input on this account. Was it “Guitar Junior” or “Snakeboy” who really played it? Based on the evidence, my money is on the Snake (“Georgia Boy”).

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Regardless, let’s take a look at this rollicking gambol of a shuffle in the key of A. When you consider the tempo is 104 bpm, the level of sustained activity in this line is mind-blowing. Most modern-day blues bassists would play that many notes in a week, but what you see in this single chorus happens through the entire 3:28 track—as well as every other mid to fast shuffle on the record. One precedent for this concept is the “rolling” bass line chorus in the classic arrangement of “After Hours,” shown in Ex. 1. By transposing this rangy riff to C and D, you’ll be able to apply it to a 12-bar form in G—a task that has been torturing bassists for decades.

Example 2 is a close approximation of Luther Johnson’s line during the first chorus of “I’m Feeling Alright.” The actual melodic content is cool, surprisingly technical, and definitely brings to mind GPBS (Guitarist Playing Bass Syndrome). The tone is thick, punchy, and dark; it sounds like a 30”- scale bass with flatwounds—the shorter scale would certainly make playing this line easier! I’ve written much of the line to go up the neck on the E and A strings instead of playing across the fingerboard, as the fast triplet runs seem to lay better there, with a thicker tone in that region.

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Luther “Snakeboy/Snake/Georgia Boy/Little Luther/Luther King” Johnson’s contributions to blues music are significant, although challenging to track. While his busier approach to the bass may not always work with some bands, there is a lot to be learned from his melodic ideas and sheer determination to put them all across. And if it was all right with Muddy, it’s all right with me.



Ed “the Bass Whisperer” Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas.


Big Mama Thornton, With the Muddy Waters Blues Band - 1966 [Arhoolie Records, 2004]

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