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Big Mama Thornton

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
Born: December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984
Notable: Musician
Nationality: American

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Show Notes

Willie Mae Thornton was born on December 11, 1926, to Thomas H. and Edna M. Thornton. Thornton was born in Ariton, Alabama, a rural town outside Montgomery. Her father was a Baptist minister and her mother sang in the choir. The exact number of children in the family is unclear but it seems that Thornton had at least three siblings and all of the children were involved with music. Thornton herself began singing in the church’s choir and learned how to play drums and the harmonica.

 

Unfortunately, Thornton’s mother died of tuberculosis when she was 14. In the aftermath, Thornton left school and home to work as a cleaner at a local saloon. Shortly after she began, Thornton was filling in for the saloon’s regular singer. By 1941, Thornton was a protege of Diamond Teeth Mary, a gospel performer. With help and guidance from Mary, Thornton came to the attention of Sammy Green, an Atlanta music promoter.

  

Thornton joined Green’s “Hot Harlem Revue” and toured the chitlin circuit. As a performer, Thornton sang, danced, and played instruments which was rare for female entertainers of the time. During her travels, Thornton was exposed to and influenced by blues icons such as Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie. Bessie Smith had died a few years earlier and Thornton was sometimes billed as the “New Bessie Smith”.

 

After seven years with the Revue, Thornton left the show. She put down roots in Houston, Texas where she worked on developing a regional style of the blues referred to as the “Texas blues”. It was around this time that Thornton met two important collaborators: Johnny Otis, a band leader, and Don Robey, a Black entrepreneur who owned Peacock Record Labels.

  

Robey was impressed after seeing Thornton play multiple instruments and signed her to a five-year record deal. Thornton worked on records with Robey and Otis who was also signed to Peacock. Thornton was a lesbian, and openly so, despite the times, which is believed to have caused some issues with Robey. But he still helped to produce some of her early records and regularly booked her at his club in Houston which was on the chitlin circuit.

  

Thornton performed and recorded with Otis’ band. It was during a 1952 set of shows with Otis at the Apollo Theater that Thornton gained the nickname “Big Mama”. It’s unclear if there was a particular event that inspired the nickname. But Thornton was over six feet tall, weighed over 200 pounds, dressed in men’s clothes, and had a resounding voice. Thornton’s presence overwhelmed and overpowered many musicians. Thus while she began the run of shows as an opener, Big Mama Thornton was quickly made a headliner as few were capable of performing after her.

  

Later in August of that year, Thornton was at a recording session when she was introduced to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. After watching Thornton perform, the men left to begin immediately writing a song for Thornton. In 15 minutes, the songwriting duo put together a 12-bar blues composition that was tailored to fit Thornton’s voice and presence. They went to the studio and handed “Hound Dog” to Big Mama Thornton which she recorded with a booming voice and growling vocals.

  

Thornton had forgotten about the song by the time it was released six months later. She first heard it on the radio on her way to a show. “Hound Dog” went nationwide and hit No. 1 on the R&B charts where it spent seven weeks. The single had been paired with Thornton’s “They Call Me Big Mama” as the B-side and sold two million copies. The song was a major success for Peacock Records, becoming its greatest-selling single of all time. Yet Thornton only received one $500 check for the record.

  

Over the next few years, other artists covered the record. One version of the record by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys became a favorite of Elvis Presley. Their rendition was lyrically and stylistically sanitized to being about a dog rather than a cheating man. Presley recorded his own version of the Freddie Bell and the Bellboys rendition.

  

As a White artist, Presley’s version was marketed to the mainstream and sold over 10 million copies, was No. 1 on the Pop charts for 11 weeks, and catapulted his career making him a superstar and millionaire. Presley’s version of “Hound Dog”, overshadowed Thornton’s and in time it was largely forgotten. Presley never publicly acknowledged Thornton and declined to perform with her.

  

The blues began to give way to rock and roll which caused a downturn in Thornton’s career. After her recording contracts ended, Thornton relocated to San Francisco where she struggled for several years due to only performing sporadically. She experienced a bit of a revival in the 60s as she released some new projects and artists of the time took an interest in her catalog.

  

Janis Joplin, a fan of Thornton’s, recorded a version of “Ball ‘n’ Chain” in 1967. Thornton had written the song in 1960 and recorded it for Bay-Tone Records. The label retained the copyright but didn’t release the song until 1968. Thus for a while, Bay-Tone was earning royalties from the song while not sharing any of the proceeds with Thornton. Fortunately, Joplin intervened, publicly giving credit to Thornton and inviting her on tour which helped provide some funds until she began receiving royalties in 1968.

  

Thornton continued to perform and release albums into the 1970s. However, she began experiencing alcohol-induced health issues. Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton died in Los Angeles on July 25, 1984, at the age of 57 from a heart attack. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and will finally be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2024.

Sources

  1. “Big Mama Thornton.” 2024. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. April 22, 2024. https://rockhall.com/inductees/big-mama-thornton/.
  2. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2024. “Big Mama Thornton.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. May 14, 2024. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Big-Mama-Thornton.
  3. Hamilton, Samuel Z. 2011. “Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton (1926-1984).” Blackpast.Org. March 28, 2011. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/thornton-willie-mae-big-mama-1926-1984/.
  4. Smith, Jami. 2024. “‘Hound Dog’ – Big Mama Thornton.” Songs That Saved Your Life. January 11, 2024. https://songsthatsavedyourlife.substack.com/p/hound-dog-big-mama-thornton.
  5. Starkey, Arun. 2021. “The Extraordinary Life of Big Mama Thornton.” Far Out Magazine. December 11, 2021. https://faroutmagazine.co.uk/the-extraordinary-life-of-big-mama-thornton/.
  6. “Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton.” 2023. Encyclopedia of Alabama. March 27, 2023. https://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/willie-mae-big-mama-thornton/.

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