A vintage, original Big Mama Thornton window card from the early fifties, with the legendary Johnny Ace headlining the bill.
You don’t see many Big Mama Thornton advertisements like this because she simply didn’t tour very much, and when she did, the posters were seldom saved.
The same scarcity holds true for a Johnny Ace placard like this, because he was tragically killed the very next year (1954).
This poster was manufactured on rigid cardboard in order to withstand the weather elements outside.
As was standard for the day, this Big Mama Thornton tour poster has dimensions of 14 x 22”.
As you can see at the top, the show occurred on Friday, July 10 (1953), at a Legion Hall… which I’m guessing was in Kansas City, Missouri.
Far and away, the most striking feature of this Johnny Ace in-person poster is its gorgeous design, which is almost too good to be true.
The large playing card that dominates the poster – the ace of diamonds – is a great play on Johnny Ace’s name, and is a visual home run.
And the colors they used… red and yellow are the two hues which most attract the human eye, and this designer knew it. When those two colors are used in conjunction with black, plus the poster’s white background, this Big Mama Thornton billboard just sings as much as the musicians did!
I love the way both their heads are floating, without necks, plus they’re both looking at us and smiling. It’s subtle, but very inviting.
Both musicians were so important that, although this is considered primarily a Johnny Ace poster board, a lot of collectors and historians would consider this first and foremost a Willie Mae Thornton concert poster.
It’s all about “Hound Dog,” which she didn’t write, but she originated. But the hit was so influential that she was known as “The Hound Dog Gal,” which is says right down there under her name.
That’s another thing to take note of: This Big Mama Thornton show poster has cool wording all over the place. They were put there to sell tickets back in 1953, but for collectors present day, they add tremendously to the fun and appeal.
I’m not talking about the factual venue information, given at the top. I’m talking about all the other fun words down in the color portion of the poster: song titles, record companies and general hyperbole.
For example, this Johnny Ace broadside says “Piano Wizard, Vocal Star” right alongside his name. Probably not necessary, but a good selling point!
Likewise with Big Mama: there’s “The Exciting Blues Shouter” directly above her name. I love it when poster designers felt it was necessary to “explain” an entertainer! Heck, even early Elvis Presley concert posters sometimes called him “the Atomic-Powered Singer.”
All of these words, of course, were used because this Big Mama Thornton window display had one quick moment to grab your attention, before you strolled on past it. It was created strictly to sell, sell, SELL!
And what better way to do that than to utilize action words such as “wizard,” “shouter” and “exciting.” I’m always surprised that more old concert posters didn’t do this… it’s not that common.
Another strong element in the design of this Johnny Ace show placard is the various fonts and type sizes used. Under Johnny’s photo, see how they change throughout: “Piano Wizard / Vocal Star / Every Record A Hit Record! / “My Song” / “Cross My Heart” / Duke Recording Star.”
Throughout those 17 words, several different fonts and type sizes are used. I think that at least subconsciously, it really helped to hold a customer’s attention.
Duke/Peacock was a very successful R&B record company out of Houston, TX, so it’s cool to see that both of those labels are name-checked on this Big Mama Thornton event poster. And in both cases, the artists are called “stars,” which was not an exaggeration.
As you can imagine, record collectors love it when the labels are given on old concert posters like this. Especially cool labels like Duke/Peacock, Atlantic and Sun.
Let’s examine the venue information of this Johnny Ace concert placard, up at the top. That’s where the show details are conveyed.
Notice that it was a dance, not just a sit-down concert. The venue is given as just “Legion Hall,” which doesn’t help us much, because there were thousands of them across America. But based on the ticket-location information, I deduced that this is probably from Kansas City.
As in most cases with these posters, the year isn’t given in the venue info; it just says, “Friday, July 10.” But we know it was 1953 by using a perpetual calendar.
And then this Big Mama Thornton window poster tells us that tickets cost $1.35 in advance and $1.75 on the last day.
It lists two locations in town where ducats were being sold. It’s from this information that I determined the poster was most likely from Kansas City.
So was this a true co-headlining bill? You betcha. Two of the songs listed on this Johnny Ace appearance poster, Big Mama’s “Hound Dog” and Johnny’s “My Song,” topped Billboard’s R&B chart for two months apiece!
And then Johnny’s “Cross My Heart,” also shown on the poster, was a #3 R&B hit earlier in 1953.
The E.J. Warner poster printing company needs to take a bow for the awesome appearance of this Big Mama Thornton tour placard. They were a poster-manufacturing outfit located in New York City.
Unfortunately, the individual designers and typesetters who laid out these old placards toiled in obscurity. I’ve never heard even one designer’s name being identified, especially from the rhythm & blues genre.
This Johnny Ace telephone-pole poster is displayed and lectured on in depth by Peter J. Howard, long-time poster expert and collector. I can be reached by using 805-540-0020 or firstname.lastname@example.org. And yes, I will PAY TOP DOLLAR, INDEED, for a copy of this poster or any similar ones from the era.
If you’d like to see a fun, strikingly similar Big Mama Thornton boxing-style concert poster from the following year, 1954, also with Johnny Ace headlining, just step on over to: http://www.postercentral.com/rhythmnblues.htm