Willie Mae “Big Mamma” Thornton(December 11, 1926-July 25, 1984) -was an American rhythm-and-blues singer and songwriter. She was the first to record Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog”, in 1952, which became her biggest hit, staying seven weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B chart in 1953 and selling almost two million copies. However, her success was overshadowed three years later, when Elvis Presley recorded his more popular rendition of “Hound Dog”. Similarly, Thornton’s “Ball ‘n’ Chain” (written in 1961 but not released until 1968) had a bigger impact when performed and recorded by Janis Joplin in the late 1960s.
Thornton’s performances were characterized by her deep, powerful
voice and strong sense of self. She tapped into a liberated black
feminist persona, through which she freed herself from many of the
expectations of musical, lyrical, and physical practice for black women. 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 used her
voice to its full potential, once stating that she was louder than any
microphone and didn’t want a microphone to ever be as loud as she was.
She was known for her strong voice.
Joplin’s biographer Alice Echols 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.”
Her style was heavily influenced by gospel music, which she grew up
listening to at the home of a preacher, though her genre could be
described as blues. 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”.
Thornton was famous for her transgressive gender expression. She
often dressed as a man in her performances, wearing work shirts and
slacks. She did not care about the opinions of others and “was openly
gay and performed risque songs unabashedly.” Improvisation was a notable part of her performance. She often entered call-and-response
exchanges with her band, inserting confident and subversive remarks.
Her play with gender and sexuality set the stage for later rock-and-roll
artists’ plays with sexuality.
Scholars such as Maureen Mahon have praised Thornton for subverting traditional roles of African-American women.
She added a female 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.
Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin admired her unique style of singing and
incorporated elements of it in their own work. Her vocal sound and style
of delivery are key parts of her style and are recognizable in
Presley’s and Joplin’s work.
Thornton’s birth certificate states that she was born in Ariton, Alabama, but in an interview with Chris Strachwitz she claimed Montgomery, Alabama, as her birthplace, probably because Montgomery was better known than Ariton.
She was introduced to music in a Baptist church, where her father was a
minister and her mother a singer. She and her six siblings began to
sing at early ages. Her mother died young, and Willlie 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 Greens Hot Harlem Revue and was soon billed as the “New Bessie Smith”.
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.
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.” She signed a recording contract with Peacock Records in 1951 and performed at the Apollo Theater in 1952. Also in 1952, she recorded “Hound Dog” while working with another Peacock artist, Johnny Otis. The songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, were present at the recording, with Leiber demonstrating the song in the vocal style they had envisioned.
The record was produced by Leiber and Stoller. Otis played drums after
the original drummer was unable to play an adequate part. It was the
first recording produced by Leiber and Stoller. The record went to
number one on the R&B chart. The record made her a star, but she saw little of the profits. On Christmas Day 1954 in a Houston, Texas theatre she witnessed fellow performer Johnny Ace, also signed to Duke and Peacock record labels, accidentally shoot and kill himself while playing with a .22 pistol. Thornton continued to record for Peacock until 1957 and performed in R&B package tours with Junior Parker and Esther Phillips.
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.”
As her career began to fade in the late 1950s and early 1960s,
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”, notably the Berkeley-based Arhoolie Records. In 1965, she toured with the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe,
where her success was notable “because very few female blues singers at
that time had ever enjoyed success across the Atlantic.” While in England that year, she recorded her first album for Arhoolie, Big Mama Thornton – In Europe. It featured backing by blues veterans Buddy Guy (guitar), Fred Below (drums), Eddie Boyd (keyboards), Jimmy Lee Robinson (bass), and Walter “Shakey” Horton (harmonica), except for three songs on which Fred McDowell provided acoustic slide guitar.
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. Thornton had now signed a contract with Pentagram Records
and could finally fulfill 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
with the album Saved (PE 10005), she achieved that longtime goal.
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”.
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 her, and, with the lack of engagements in the
United States, she agreed happily. The tour, beginning on March 2.
brought 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.
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. 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; the
saxophonist Bill Potter; the bassist Bruce Sieverson; and the pianist J.
D. Nicholson. She toured intensively through the United States and
Canada, played at the Juneteenth Blues Fest in Houston and shared the
bill with John Lee Hooker. She performed at the San Francisco Blues Festival
in 1979 and the Newport Jazz Festival in 1980. In the early 1970s,
Thornton’s sexual proclivities became a question among blues fans. Big Mama also performed in the “Blues Is a Woman” concert that year, alongside classic blues legend Sippie Wallace,
sporting a man’s three-piece suit, straw hat, and gold watch. She sat
at stage center and played pieces she wanted to play, which were not on
Thornton took part in the Tribal Stomp at Monterey Fairgrounds, the
Third Annual Sacramento Blues Festival, the Los Angeles Bicentennial
Blues with BB King and Muddy Waters. She was a guest on an ABC-TV
special hosted by the actor Hal Holbrook 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.
Thornton was found dead at age 57 by medical personnel in a Los Angeles boarding house
on July 25, 1984. She died of heart and liver disorders due to her
longstanding alcohol abuse. She had lost 255 pounds (116 kg) in a short
time as a result of illness, her weight dropping from 350 to 95 pounds
Literature: Spörke, Michael: Big Mama Thornton - The Life And Music. Jefferson: McFarland, 2014. ISBN 978-0-7864-7759-3
During her career, Thornton was nominated for the Blues Music Awards six times. In 1984, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
In addition to “Ball 'n’ Chain” and “They Call Me Big Mama,” Thornton
wrote twenty other 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”.
It wasn’t until Janis Joplin covered Thornton’s “Ball 'n’ Chain” that
it became a huge hit. Thornton did not receive compensation for her
song, but Joplin gave her the recognition she deserved by having
Thornton open 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.”
Thornton subsequently received greater recognition for her popular
songs, but she is still underappreciated for her influence on the blues
and soul music.
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.
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.
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.
The first full-length biography of Thornton, Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music, by Michael Spörke, was published in 2014.
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 eighteen.