Everybody got a ‘Big Mama.’ Today’s featured Blues artist is “Big Mama Thornton.” You might be highly familiar with a few of these blues songs, co-opted by Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, and The Rolling Stones. These songs were re-recorded by white artists, played on white-owned radio stations, and became popular and known as the originals by their listening audiences. And of course they profited off the creative genius of these Black musicians.
Gonna Leave You
Willie Mae “Big Mama” 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. It spent seven weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B charts in 1953 and sold 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. Many collaborators described her with words such as monstrous, intimidating, formidable, and menacing. She was given her nickname, “Big Mama,” by Frank Schiffman, manager of Harlem’s Apollo Theater, due to her big voice, size, and personality. Thornton specialized in playing drums and harmonica as well as singing, and she taught herself how to play these instruments simply by watching other musicians perform. Her style was heavily influenced by the gospel music that she witnessed growing up in the home of a preacher, though her genre could be described as blues.
Thornton was famous for her transgressive gender expression. She often dressed as a man in her performances, wearing items such as work shirts and slacks. This led to many rumors about her sexuality, though none confirmed. Her improvisation was a notable part of her performance. She often enters call-and-response exchanges with her band, inserting confident and notably subversive remarks. Her play with gender and sexuality set the stage for later rock ‘n’ roll artists’ own plays with sexuality.
Feminist scholars such as Maureen Mahon often praise 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 patriarchal and white supremacist stereotypes of what an African American woman should be. This transgression was an integral part of her performance and stage persona.
Thornton’s birth certificate states that she was born in Ariton, Alabama, but in an interview with Chris Strachwitz she claims Montgomery, Alabama as her birthplace, probably because Montgomery, Alabama was a better known place than Ariton, Alabama. Her introduction to music started in a Baptist church, where her father was a minister and her mother a church singer. She and her six siblings began to sing at very early ages.  Her mother died early and Willie Mae Thornton left school and got a job washing and cleaning spittoons in the local tavern. In 1940 Willie Mae Thornton 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”. Although her introduction to music started within the church, Thornton’s musical education came through pure observation of Rhythm and Blues artists Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, whom she admired deeply.
With the change that Rhythm and Blues was experiencing in the late 1940s, 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. 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 as Otis had to play drums after it was found that the original drummer couldn’t play an adequate part. It was the first time Leiber and Stoller produced a recording, which went to number one on the R&B chart. Although the record made her a star, she saw little of the profits. 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 and 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.”
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”.
In 2004, the non-profit Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls—named for Thornton—was founded to offer a musical education to girls from ages eight to eighteen.
The first full-length biography of Thornton “Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music” written by Michael Spörke has been published in 2014.
The one and only ORIGNAL ‘HOUND DOG’
Ball and Chain