This musical got its start at Lunchbox and ran this summer in Victoria!
Musical recounts woman’s big challenges
What: Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story
Where: Belfry Theatre
When: To Aug. 19
Tickets: $25 to $40 (250-385-6815)
It’s tough to make it in the music business. And if you’re a woman, it’s even tougher, says Jackie Richardson.
The Toronto actorsinger stars in Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story, a musical now playing the Belfry Theatre. Thornton was a rhythm and blues singer best known for charting with Hound Dog in 1953, three years before Elvis. She also wrote Ball ‘n’ Chain, later a trademark song for Janis Joplin.
There were successes; however, life was often rough for Thornton, who starting singing professionally in 1941 at age 14. Early on, she made money between gigs shining shoes and picking cotton. In the ’40s she travelled the South as a singer, dancer and comedian with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue. Thornton managed to survive – and occasionally prosper – in the male-dominated blues world of the 1950s, touring with the likes of Junior Parker, Johnny Ace and Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown.
Richardson’s experience in music was quite different. She was born in Pittsburgh, one of seven children. Her father – a sometime barbershop singer nicknamed Big Daddy – moved the family to Toronto in search of a better life.
Like Thornton, Richardson entered showbiz as a 14year-old. She joined the Tiaras, a 1960s act that specialized in tunes by girl groups such as the Supremes and the Shirelles. Beehive hairdos, sequined tops and skin-tight satin skirts with side-slits were de rigueur.
The Tiaras soon graduated from school dances to nightclub dates. Richardson recalls the girls, all underage, being shooed off the stage between sets. “They put us into this little cubbyhole closet and we had to stay there. We’d come out singin’, and go right back into the closet,” she said.
Her dad, who liked to hang out with musicians, knew music wouldn’t be an easy path.
Nonetheless, he supported his daughter’s ambitions. She soon discovered being a female singer wasn’t just about talent.
“I’m a big woman. I’ve been big all my life,” declared Richardson, who has nine fingernails painted black and – “just for fun” – a single white one. “Back then you had to be skinny, you had to be svelte.”
She never forgot auditioning to be a singer at a Toronto club. Her voice was deemed fine. But the bandleader passed her over because, in his eyes, Richardson was too chubby.
Fortunately, Richardson had inherited tenacity from her father (who was 300plus pounds and six-footfive).
“I said, I’m not going to listen to that. This is what I want to do. And I’m just going to keep on singing. But it was a hard thing to deal with,” she said.
Richardson went on to succeed not only as a singer, but as an actress. Her theatre credits include a string of biographical musical roles – she’s starred in shows about the singers Mabel Mercer, Alberta Hunter and Ma Rainey.
She was to find the theatre world was less image obsessed than the music scene. Rehearsing for Cookin’ at the Cookery, chronicling the life story of Alberta Hunter, Richardson was fretful. She was much larger than Hunter, a “tiny, tiny woman.” Her director told her not to worry.
“He said, ‘Jackie, it’s from the inside. I want you to find that essence. It doesn’t matter what size you are.’ ”
Richardson carries that approach to Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story. Although she’s familiar with Thornton’s music and her life, Richardson aims to summon the late singer’s soul rather than mimicking her style.
Richardson originated the role of Thornton in 1999. The musical – written by Audrei-Kairen Kotaska – was originally a 50-minute piece done for Lunchbox Theatre in Calgary. The director, John Cooper (who also directs the Belfry’s production), subsequently asked the playwright to expand it into a full-length evening.
Willie Mae Thornton, who died in 1984, was the product of a much different place and time. Yet Richardson feels a kinship with this woman, whom she never met.
“She was rough and tough,” Richardson said. “She was a survivor.”