Willie Mae Thornton (December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984), better known as Big Mama Thornton because of her height (nearly 6 feet) and weight (200 pounds), was an American singer and songwriter of the blues and R&B. She was the first to record Leiber and Stoller's "Hound Dog", in 1952,[2] which was written for her and became her biggest hit, staying seven weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B chart in 1953.[3] According to Maureen Mahon, a music professor at New York University, "the song is seen as an important beginning of rock-and-roll, especially in its use of the guitar as the key instrument".[4]

Big Mama Thornton
Thornton about 1955–1960
Thornton about 1955–1960
Background information
Birth nameWillie Mae Thornton
Born(1926-12-11)December 11, 1926[1]
Ariton, Alabama, U.S.
OriginOakland, California, U.S.
DiedJuly 25, 1984(1984-07-25) (aged 57)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Occupation(s)Singer, songwriter
Instrument(s)Vocals, harmonica
Years active1947–1984
LabelsPeacock, Arhoolie, Mercury, Pentagram, Backbeat, Vanguard, Ace

Thornton's other recordings include the original version of "Ball and Chain", which she wrote.

Early life edit

Thornton's birth certificate states that she was born in Ariton, Alabama,[5] but in an interview with Chris Strachwitz, she claimed Montgomery, Alabama, as her birthplace, probably because Montgomery was better known than Ariton.[6]

She was introduced to music in a Baptist church, where her father was a minister and her mother a singer. Thornton and her six siblings began to sing at early ages.[7] Her mother died young, and Willie Mae left school and got a job washing and cleaning spittoons in a local tavern. In 1940, she left home and, with the help of Diamond Teeth Mary, joined Sammy Green's Hot Harlem Revue and was soon billed as the "New Bessie Smith".[6] Her musical education started in the church but continued through her observation of the rhythm-and-blues singers Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, whom she deeply admired.[8]

Career edit

Early career edit

Thornton's career began to take off when she moved to Houston in 1948. "A new kind of popular blues was coming out of the clubs in Texas and Los Angeles, full of brass horns, jumpy rhythms, and wisecracking lyrics."[9] In 1951, she signed a recording contract with Peacock Records and performed at the Apollo Theater in 1952. Also in 1952, while working with another Peacock artist Johnny Otis, she recorded "Hound Dog", the first record produced by its writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The pair were present at the recording,[10] with Leiber demonstrating the song in the vocal style they had envisioned;[11][12] "We wanted her to growl it," Stoller said, which she did. Otis played drums, after the original drummer was unable to play an adequate part. The record sold more than half a million copies, and went to number one on the R&B chart,[13] helping to bring in the dawn of rock 'n' roll.[14] Although the record made Thornton a star, she reportedly saw little of the profits.[15]

On Christmas Day 1954 in a theatre in Houston, Texas, she witnessed fellow performer Johnny Ace, also signed to Duke and Peacock record labels, accidentally shoot and kill himself while playing with a .32 pistol.[16] Thornton continued to record for Peacock until 1957 and performed in R&B package tours with Junior Parker and Esther Phillips.

Thornton's success with "Hound Dog" was followed over three years later by Elvis Presley recording his hit version of the song.[10] His recording at first annoyed Leiber who wrote, "I have no idea what that rabbit business is all about. The song is not about a dog, it's about a man, a freeloading gigolo."[14] But Elvis' version sold ten million copies, so today few fans know that "Hound Dog" began as "an anthem of black Women's power."[14] Similarly, Thornton originally recorded her song "Ball 'n' Chain" for Bay-Tone Records in the early 1960s, "and though the label chose not to release the song... they did hold on to the copyright" – which meant that Thornton missed out on the publishing royalties when Janis Joplin recorded the song later in the decade.[8] However, in a 1972 interview, Thornton acknowledged giving Joplin permission to record the song and receiving royalty payments from its sales.[17]

Success edit

As her career began to fade in the late 1950s and early 1960s,[2] she left Houston and relocated to the San Francisco Bay area, "playing clubs in San Francisco and L.A. and recording for a succession of labels",[8] notably the Berkeley-based Arhoolie Records. In 1965, she toured with the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe,[18] where her success was notable "because very few female blues singers at that time had ever enjoyed success across the Atlantic."[19] While in London on October 20, she recorded her first album for Arhoolie, Big Mama Thornton – In Europe.[20] It featured backing by blues veterans Buddy Guy (guitar), Fred Below (drums), Eddie Boyd (keyboards), Jimmy Lee Robinson (bass), and Walter "Shakey" Horton (harmonica),[20] except for two songs (and a third as a bonus track on the 2005 CD reissue) on which Fred McDowell provided acoustic slide guitar.[21]

In 1966, Thornton recorded her second album for Arhoolie, Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band – 1966, with Muddy Waters (guitar), Sammy Lawhorn (guitar), James Cotton (harmonica), Otis Spann (piano), Luther Johnson (bass guitar), and Francis Clay (drums). She performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 and 1968. Her last album for Arhoolie, Ball n' Chain, was released in 1968. It was made up of tracks from her two previous albums, plus her composition "Ball and Chain" and the standard "Wade in the Water". A small combo, including her frequent guitarist Edward "Bee" Houston, provided backup for the two songs. Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company's performance of "Ball 'n' Chain" at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and the release of the song on their number one album Cheap Thrills renewed interest in Thornton's career.[22]

By 1969, Thornton had signed with Mercury Records, which released her most successful album, Stronger Than Dirt, which reached number 198 in the Billboard Top 200 record chart. Next, Thornton signed a contract with Pentagram Records and finally fulfilled one of her biggest dreams. A blues woman and the daughter of a preacher, Thornton loved the blues and what she called the "good singing" of gospel artists like the Dixie Hummingbirds and Mahalia Jackson. She had always wanted to record a gospel record, and did so with the album Saved (PE 10005). The album includes the gospel classics "Oh, Happy Day", "Down By The Riverside", "Glory, Glory Hallelujah", "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands", "Lord Save Me", "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", "One More River", and "Go Down Moses".[6]

By then, the American blues revival had come to an end. While the original blues acts like Thornton mostly played smaller venues, younger people played their versions of blues in massive arenas for big money. Since the blues had seeped into other genres of music, the blues musician no longer needed impoverishment or geography for substantiation; the style was enough. While at home the offers became fewer and smaller, things changed for good in 1972, when Thornton was asked to rejoin the American Folk Blues Festival tour. She thought of Europe as a good place for herself, and, with the lack of engagements in the United States, she agreed happily. The tour, beginning on March 2, took Thornton to Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, where it ended on March 27 in Stockholm. With her on the bill were Eddie Boyd, Big Joe Williams, Robert Pete Williams, T- Bone Walker, Paul Lenart, Hartley Severns, Edward Taylor and Vinton Johnson. As in 1965, they garnered recognition and respect from other musicians who wanted to see them.[6]

Late career and death edit

In the 1970s, years of heavy drinking began to damage Thornton's health. She was in a serious auto accident but recovered to perform at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival with Muddy Waters, B. B. King, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson (a recording of this performance, The Blues—A Real Summit Meeting, was released by Buddha Records). Thornton's last albums were Jail and Sassy Mama for Vanguard Records in 1975. Other songs from the recording session were released in 2000 on Big Mama Swings. Jail captured her performances during mid-1970s concerts at two prisons in the northwestern United States.[6]

She was backed by a blues ensemble that featured sustained jams by George "Harmonica" Smith and included the guitarists Doug MacLeod, Bee Houston and Steve Wachsman, the drummer Todd Nelson, saxophonist Bill Potter, bassist Bruce Sieverson, and pianist J. D. Nicholson. She toured extensively through the United States and Canada, played at the Juneteenth Blues Fest in Houston and shared the bill with John Lee Hooker.[6]

She performed at the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1979 and the Newport Jazz Festival in 1980. Thornton also performed in the "Blues Is a Woman" concert that year, alongside Sippie Wallace, sporting a man's three-piece suit, straw hat, and gold watch. She sat at center stage and played pieces she wanted to play, which were not on the program.[23] Thornton took part in the Tribal Stomp at Monterey Fairgrounds, the Third Annual Sacramento Blues Festival, and the Los Angeles Bicentennial Blues with B. B. King and Muddy Waters. She was a guest on an ABC-TV special hosted by actor Hal Holbrook and was joined by Aretha Franklin and toured through the club scene. She was also part of the award-winning PBS television special Three Generations of the blues with Sippie Wallace and Jeannie Cheatham.[6]

Thornton was found dead at age 57 by medical personnel in a Los Angeles boarding house[24] on July 25, 1984. She died of heart and liver disorders due to her longstanding alcohol abuse. She had lost 355 pounds (161 kg) in a short time as a result of illness, her weight dropping from 450 to 95 pounds (204 to 43 kg).[8]

Style edit

Thornton's performances were characterized by her deep, powerful voice and strong sense of self. She was given her nickname, "Big Mama," by Frank Schiffman, the manager of Harlem's Apollo Theater, because of her strong voice, size, and personality. Thornton stated that she was louder than any microphone and did not want a microphone to ever be as loud as she was. Alice Echols, the author of a biography of Janis Joplin, said that Thornton could sing in a "pretty voice" but did not want to. Thornton said, "My singing comes from my experience... My own experience. I never had no one teach me nothin'. I never went to school for music or nothin'. I taught myself to sing and to blow harmonica and even to play drums by watchin' other people! I can't read music, but I know what I'm singing! I don't sing like nobody but myself."[25][26]

Her style was heavily influenced by gospel music that she listened to growing up in the home of a preacher, though her genre could be described as blues.[22] Thornton was quoted in a 1980 article in The New York Times: "when I was comin' up, listening to Bessie Smith and all, they sung from their heart and soul and expressed themselves. That's why when I do a song by Jimmy Reed or somebody, I have my own way of singing it. Because I don't want to be Jimmy Reed, I want to be me. I like to put myself into whatever I'm doin' so I can feel it".[16]

Scholars such as Maureen Mahon have praised Thornton for subverting traditional roles of African-American women.[22] She added a woman voice to a field that was dominated by white males, and her strong personality transgressed stereotypes of what an African-American woman should be. This transgression was an integral part of her performance and stage persona.[27]

Scholar Tyina Steptoe has written that Thornton's gender nonconformity helped to establish rock 'n' roll as a rebellious form of music. She says that Thornton should be understood as queer.[28]

Legacy edit

During her career, Thornton was nominated for the Blues Music Awards six times.[22] In 1984, (the year of her death) she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

In addition to "Ball 'n' Chain" and "They Call Me Big Mama," Thornton wrote 20 blues songs. Her "Ball 'n' Chain" is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of the "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll".[13] It was not until Janis Joplin covered Thornton's "Ball 'n' Chain" that it became a hit. Though Thornton did not receive financial compensation for her song, Joplin arranged for Thornton to open shows for her. Joplin found her singing voice through Thornton, who praised Joplin's version of "Ball 'n' Chain", saying, "That girl feels like I do."[29]

Thornton subsequently received greater recognition for her popular songs, but she is still under appreciated for her influence on the blues, rock and roll and soul music.[30] Thornton's music was also influential in shaping American popular music. The lack of appreciation she received for "Hound Dog" and "Ball 'n' Chain" as they became popular hits is representative of the lack of recognition she received during her career as a whole.[31] Many critics argue that Thornton's lack of recognition in the music industry is a reflection of an era of racial segregation in the United States, both physically and in the music industry.[22][31] Scholars suggest that Thornton's lack of access to broader audiences (both white and black), may have been a barrier to her commercial success as both a vocalist and a composer.[22][31]

In 2004, the nonprofit Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, named for Thornton, was founded to offer a musical education to girls from ages eight to 18.[22] The first biography of Thornton, Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music, by Michael Spörke, was published in 2014.[6]

In 2022, Thornton was featured as a character in a biopic about Elvis Presley, simply titled Elvis. In the movie, Thornton (played by Shonka Dukureh) is depicted in much the same way she was in real life. Namely, as the original singer of "Hound Dog" and Thornton is shown prominently in the movie singing the song. Presley (played by Austin Butler) hears Thornton sing "Hound Dog" at a concert and decides to make a cover of the song. Dukureh's performance of "Hound Dog" was included in full on the soundtrack.[32] Both the movie and soundtrack were critical and commercial hits and gave greater public attention to Thornton.

Discography edit

This is a partial discography.

Studio and live albums edit

Year Title Label
1966[33] Big Mama Thornton – In Europe Arhoolie
1966 Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Water Blues Band Arhoolie
1969 Stronger Than Dirt Mercury
1970 The Way It Is Mercury
1971 Saved Pentagram
1975 Jail (Live) Vanguard
1975 Sassy Mama! (Live) Vanguard

Compilations edit

Year Title Label
1968 Ball n' Chain Arhoolie
1970 She's Back Backbeat/Peacock
1978 Mama's Pride (compilation of tracks from Jail and Sassy Mama!) Vanguard

Source: Big Mama Thornton at AllMusic, except where indicated

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ Malone, Bill C.; Wilson, Charles Reagan (2009). The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 12 (illustrated ed.). University of North Carolina Press. p. 370. ISBN 9780807832394. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  2. ^ a b Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 177. ISBN 978-1-85868-255-6.
  3. ^ "Big Mama Thornton – Biography". Billboard. Archived from the original on June 3, 2016. Retrieved October 12, 2015.
  4. ^ Blues singer 'Big Mama' Thornton had a hit with 'Hound Dog.' Then Elvis came along, washingtonpost.com; accessed October 12, 2021.
  5. ^ Mahon, Maureen. "Mama's Voice". Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on December 21, 2014. Retrieved June 2, 2014.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Michael Spörke. "Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music". Mcfarlandbooks.com. Retrieved October 7, 2015.
  7. ^ Fay, Robert (1999). "Thornton, Willie Mae ('Big Mama')". In Appiah, Kwame Anthony; Gates, Henry Louis Jr. (eds.). Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (1st ed.). Basic Civitas Books. p. 1845. ISBN 978-0-465-00071-5.
  8. ^ a b c d Gaar, Gillian (1992). She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. Seattle: Seal Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-1580050784.
  9. ^ O'Dair, Barbara (1997). Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock. New York: Random House. ISBN 9780679768746.
  10. ^ a b Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 7, The All American Boy: Enter Elvis and the Rock-a-Billies. Part 1" (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries.
  11. ^ Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography. pp. 61–65.
  12. ^ Rooks, Rikky (2006). Lyrics: Writing Better Words for Your Songs. Backbeat Books. p. 171; ISBN 0-87930-885-0
  13. ^ a b Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits. Billboard Books; ISBN 0-8230-7677-6
  14. ^ a b c March 2019. "Smithsonian", of. 42.
  15. ^ Santelli, Robert. The Big Book of Blues. p. 464.
  16. ^ a b "Big Mama Thornton Plays Rare Club Date; The Women 'Just Sang' A Hit in 'Hound Dog'". The New York Times. July 4, 1980.
  17. ^ Spörke, Michael (2014). Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music. McFarland Inc. p. 70. ISBN 978-0-7864-7759-3.
  18. ^ "American Folk Blues Festival 1962–1965, Vol. 2 | Free Trailers, Plot Synopsis, Photos, Cast and Crew | MTV Movies". Mtv.com. December 19, 2014. Retrieved October 7, 2015.
  19. ^ Dicaire, David (1999). Blues Singers: Biographies of 50 Legendary Artists of the Early 20th Century. North Carolina: McFarland & Company. p. 212. ISBN 978-0786406067.
  20. ^ a b Spörke 2014, p. 155.
  21. ^ In Europe review at AllMusic
  22. ^ a b c d e f g Mahon, Maureen (2011). "Listening for Willie Mae 'Big Mama' Thornton's Voice: The Sound of Race and Gender Transgressions in Rock and Roll". Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture. 15: 1–17. doi:10.1353/wam.2011.0005. S2CID 191365511.
  23. ^ Johnson, Maria (2010). "You Just Can't Keep a Good Woman Down: Alice Walker Sings the Blues". African American Review. 30 (2): 221–236. doi:10.2307/3042356. JSTOR 3042356.
  24. ^ "Big Mama Thornton: Biography | Billboard". www.billboard.com. Archived from the original on June 3, 2016. Retrieved December 13, 2015.
  25. ^ "Big Mama Thornton". Headbutler.com. Retrieved December 14, 2015.
  26. ^ "Mama's Voice | The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum". rockhall.com. Archived from the original on April 1, 2016. Retrieved December 13, 2015.
  27. ^ Waterman, Dick (2003). Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive. New York: Thunder's Mouth. ISBN 978-1933784458.
  28. ^ Steptoe, Tyina (2018). "Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, and the Queer Roots of Rock 'n' Roll". American Quarterly. 70 (1): 55–77. doi:10.1353/aq.2018.0003. ISSN 1080-6490. S2CID 149727178.
  29. ^ Suer, Kinsley (January 30, 2019). "The Many Musical Influences of Janis Joplin". Portland Center Stage.
  30. ^ Holden, Stephen (July 1984). "Willie Mae Thornton, Influential Blues Singer". The New York Times.
  31. ^ a b c Jones, Dalton Anthony (January 2015). "Death Sentences: From Genesis to Genre (Big Mama's Parole)". Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. 25: 59–81. doi:10.1080/0740770X.2014.994840. S2CID 142981288.
  32. ^ "The Music of 'Elvis': A Complete Guide to Who Sings What on Soundtrack, from Jack White to Jazmine Sullivan to Stevie Nicks". June 18, 2022.
  33. ^ Spörke 2014, p. 166.

Bibliography edit

  • Spörke, Michael (2014). Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-7759-3.

External links edit