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Coast to Coast with Big Mama Thornton

Coast to Coast with Big Mama Thornton

Nat Dove
African American multi-instrumentalist Jazz and Blues Musician, Singer, Composer-Arranger, Producer, Historian, Educator and Author

Upon returning to Hollywood, after spending two years in Texas, studying at Prairie View University and Commonwealth College of Science. Doves livelihood consisted of freelancing as a pianist and music arranger. Leading the house band at the California Club, conducting the band for such acts as Johnnie Taylor, Jerry Butler, Rudy Ray Moore, Papa John Creach and the like. After about a year, his old friend from his Houston days Willie Mae ???Big Mama??? Thornton offered him a chance to tour with her band: The Original Hound Dog Band. Dove accepted of course, and the band open for an extended engagement at the world famous Ash Grove Folk Music-Coffee House, as the house band. Then, to San Francisco where they shared the bill with the great Sammy Davis Jr. Barbara McNair , Milton Berle and Peter Lawford. The band performed at many of the local bay area venues such as The Jazz Workshop, Winterland Auditorium, Avalon Ballroom, Hungry I, Palace of Fine Arts, ETC.

After performing at many music halls and festivals all over the West coast of the United States. Dove and the band were invited to play the mecca of African American show business: The Apollo Theater in New York City. It was a dream come, true for Dove and the band. This was the last great blues show presented at that famous venue. The trip from Los Angeles to New York was an adventure in itself. The band decided to make a vacation out of the trip. They stopped and spent time in many of the major cities and hometowns of all the members of the band, from Los Angeles, California to New York City. This a great learning experience for Dove and the band. This tour if you will, gave the musicians an opportunity to connect with the pass as Big Mama Thornton had experienced it over a decade before. To Dove this was a tour with probably the best tour guide a tour of this nature could have had. He was introduced to people, places and things that only this tour, at this time and with these people could be experienced. The show at the Apollo featured: Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton, Wynonie Harris, Odetta, The Chambers Brothers, Jimmy Witherspoon, Honey Coles and Del Shields.

Dove, of course had frequented Houstons famous blues venue, even as a teenager: The Club Matinee in that citys fifth ward. But with Big Mama Thornton as a tour guide, their itinerary included Frank Panias Dew Drop Inn, in New Orleans on Halloween Night. The place where Little Richard composed Tutti-Fruity. The same place where Ray Charles developed the style later to be named Soul Music. On this night the featured act was the great Big Joe Turner. Dove wasnt aware that Turner was on the bill with them at the Apollo in New York City. Of course touring band went to Montgomery, AL. This is Big Mamas hometown. She did not seem to be excited about being home. The bands tour continued to Atlanta, Georgia where Big Mama introduced the band to R&B band leader Red McAllister , owner of the most elegant night club in Atlanta,GA. The Royal Peacock which was the primary venue for touring R&B and soul revues, with performers including, but not limited to, Chuck Willis, BB King, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, and every other big name soul act imaginable.

The tour moved on up the east coast toward New York City. The sight of which, for Dove was very exciting. From the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, New York City looked like a poster of a city in a hole. If you did ever arrive there you would be trapped in this hole with no way to escape. Manhattan is of course an island, the vision of this picturesque metropolis gave Dove a feeling of eerie amazement and a sense of the possibility of being overwhelmed by the mere size of this place.

The arrival of Big Mama and the band in New York City was nothing less than spectacular, really something to see, an adventure in itself. The city seems to be everything they had heard it was, and more. Big Mama checked the band and herself into the Braddock Hotel, on 126th Street and Eighth Avenue. Just around the corner from the Apollo Theater. Downstairs, at street level of the Braddock Hotel was the Braddock Bar. The band was later to find out that the great comic Pigmeat Markham hangout. Big Mama Introduced him to the band. Also, Big Maybelle Smith the dynamic vocalist and Big Mamas nemesis, lived there at the Braddock as well. Tony Williams, former lead singer and original member of the singing group ???The Platters??? and his wife Helen operated a small restaurant on 126th street, at the backstage of the Apollo Theater.

James Brown Show had two days to go at the Apollo before closing. The blues show would open after they close. Big Mamas band knew some members of his band from Los Angeles. The great Jimmy Nolan played guitar and Eldee Williams played tenor saxophone with the James Brown Band. James Browns band and Big Mamas band had a chance to hang out and reminiscence about old times. The James Brown Show had just returned from Paris, France. This fact was fascinating to Dove.

Dove had often thought about going to a foreign country and performing his music. He had read many books written by African American writers about the lack of obstacles due to the prevalence of racism in foreign countries, as oppose to the African Americans experience in the United States. Dove vowed, that if any feasible opportunity would ever present itself to travel the world, he would gladly do so.

Anticipating appearing at the Apollo Theater was a thrill for Dove and the band. Only one of the band members had ever appeared at the Apollo before, that was Curtis Tillman, who was really Big Mamas running buddy. The both of them had appeared there in the early 1950s with Johnnie Ace Show. Big Mama had lived with Curtis and Helen, (Mrs. Tillman) in Los Angeles when she set up residence on the west coast.

The band was invited to the Apollo by Jimmy Nolan and Eldee Williams, this was quite an experience. To see how The James Brown Show was marketed was something to behold. There was snow on the ground, a line around two corners to see James Brown. There were sovereign hawkers, selling just about anything and everything ???James Brown??? James Brown Pictures, James Brown T-shirts, James Brown Buttons, James Brown scarfs, James Brown whistles, pictures of James Brown with his poodle dog. Big Mama nor her band had seen anything like this spectacle before. Dove learned many lessons from this and saw this as a phenomenon experience. He would never forget what he saw that cold November day, with thousands of people waiting to see James Brown do his thing.

Once inside, the show featured a full variety of entertainment: Johnnie Nash- male singer, Mongo Santamaria- Latin Jazz, Nicholas Brothers-show dancers and Damita Jo- female singer. The JBs James Browns Band open their show, the band was the funkiest band in the whole-wide-world. They had two drummers and Jimmy Nolans chomp-chomp rhythms on the guitar set the mood and soulful atmosphere for the star of the show. Then, the hardest working man ever in show business came out and mesmerized the audience for two hours, nonstop. One funky song, one funky beat after another. Everything hitting on the one. James Brown dancing and doing the wildest moves one ever expected to see a human being do. Audience going absolutely crazy for more James, and more James. He accommodated to their every whim. James Brown doing James Brown. The audience got exactly what they came to see. James Brown begging; Please, Please, Please to the point where he can not leave the stage and his audience. Everytime he would try to leave the spirit hits him again. He throws off his cape and comes back to give them more and more and more. It is pure black church, it is the gospel of funk music. Straight from the ring shouts of the African continent. He finally left the stage and everyone got exactly what the came for. A funky, cleansing of their souls, an orgy of climatic release.

Anticipation of performing at the Great World Famous Apollo Theater was at the very lease, creating bitter sweet anxieties in Dove and the rest of the Hound Dog Band. This was the big time.

There was session the day before the opening where everyone on the show, met at the theater and the full show is arranged. There is a rehearsal and sound check of the different acts, also they determined the order in which the acts will appear on the show. This is when the entertainers were assigned dressing rooms.

The back stage atmosphere and environment of the Apollo Theater with all of this star power, egos, attitudes and personalities. It is a wonder this show could ever happen. It did happen, it was great and it was a fantastic learning experience for Dove and the band.

Big Mamas band was in a dressing room on the 5th floor, basically the top floor of the Apollo Theater. They were up there alone, with no one to bother them. They were young enough not to worry about the walk up after each show. The Apollo presented five shows each day. It earned the nick name the workhouse. The entertainers would arrive at about 10:00 AM, and stay until 10:00 or 11:00 PM, for five days. The money was well earned.

Each featured artist has his or her own reputation and personality to uphold and project.
Big Mamas reputation was that of the show stopper, which meant that she and her band went on last, because nobody could, or wanted to try and follow her. T-Bones reputation was that of a smooth, urbane blues legend of iconoclastic status. T-Bones first complaint and request was that he could not perform with an east coast band. He needed to have a west coast blues band. Which meant he wanted to share Big Mama band. This was cool with Dove and the band because this meant double salary for them. They knew all of T-Bones songs. This was just a way for T-Bone to give them a chance to earn more money. T-Bone would always look out for the musicians. He knew all of these guys, and had played with them before.

Big Joe Tuner sing jump blues with a risque twist. Big Joe was a professional, mined his own business and did his show to perfection. On the last show of this engagement Big Joe held the audience of young teenagers and adolescents spellbound with his rendition of his hit ???Chains of Love???. They had never heard anything like that before. He left them with tears running down their cheeks. But as anyone who knew of Big Joes talents and skills, as a pros pro. This was to be expected. To see and hear Big Joe, is to witness blues performed by the best there is.

T-Bone Walkers first comment was to make an observation, that the ages of the performers added up to be about a about thousand years of blues on the show. His comment didnt go over so well; no one laughed. T-Bone and Wynonie shared a dressing room, That arrangement lasted for only two days. Wynonie had a reputation for being hard to get along with, and of course he live up to that reputation. T-Bone was not known to be mister congeniality either. They clashed, as anyone could have predicted. Jimmy Jimmy Witherspoon was also dissatisfied with his dressing room arrangement, so he moved out of his assigned dressing room and he ended up across the hall from Dove and big Mamas band at the top of the five floor walk up.

There was a party going on in the bands dressing room, and it went on for the full five days of the engagement. Big Mamas band along with the Chambers Brothers. The Chambers Brother had sacks of marijuana and there was all the whiskey and cognac anyone ever wanted to see. The party was on, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

Jimmy Witherspoon was not satisfied the other room either. He said that he did not like the noise coming from the bands dressing room. He band thought he was just jealous because there were many ladies coming out of and going into the bands dressing room between shows.

Both Honey Coles and Del Shields lived in New York City, so they were at home. They were absolute gentlemen. Honey Cole later stared in the musical Bubbling Brown Sugar.
Del Shields was the president of the National Radio Disc Jockey Association.

When musicians perform at the Apollo Theater, they must sign an agreement that prohibit them from performing at any other venue in the the city. Ruben Phillips was the leader of the house band at the Apollo theater. His band played for all of the acts that performed at the theater. Ruben Phillips really was nice to Dove and the band. He knew of many opportunities for Dove and the band to perform and make extra money at various venues in the city. Ruben would slip Dove a strip of paper each night informing him of a night club or bar that needed a band for the evening.