Being a music nerd, I’ve always loved to dig deeper into a musician’s catalog and career, but for “Big Mama” Thornton, I only knew two things before writing this blog: She was a celebrated blues singer and she recorded a (much better) version of “Hound Dog” before Elvis Presley reworked it and made the song famous.
“Big Mama” was born Willie Mae Thornton on December 11, 1926, in Ariton, Alabama, to a Baptist minister and his Gospel-singing wife. Thornton, along with her six siblings, got their start at her father’s church singing in the choir. When Thornton’s mother passed away, Thornton left school and took a job washing and cleaning spittoons in the local tavern before she decided to leave home in 1940. Along with Diamond Teeth Mary, Thornton joined Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue, where she earned the moniker of the “New Bessie Smith,” a singer who Thornton admired.
In 1951, Thornton caught the eye of Don Robey, owner of the Houston record label Peacock Records, who signed her and released Thornton’s debut single “Partnership Blues.” However, it wasn’t until her third single that Thornton really busted out of the local Houston music scene. Backed by Johnny Otis’ band and the iconic guitar riff of Pete Lewis, Thornton recorded her third single, “Hound Dog.” With her throaty vocal delivery and passionate singing, the single caught the eye of the nation. It would prove to be Thornton’s only major hit, landing at the top of the R&B Billboard charts for several weeks in 1953. Just three years later, Elvis’ version went on to be a larger than life hit for the would-be “King of Rock & Roll,” making Thornton’s version almost forgettable at the time.
Despite the Elvis debacle, Thornton continued on as a well-respected and loved singer, releasing “I Smell a Rat,” “Stop Hoppin’ on Me,” and “Just like a Dog” by 1957.
The early 1960s were hard for Thornton, with both a fading career and a sinking bank account (she saw little to no money from the “Hound Dog” single), but the blues goddess finally came back into circulation with her 1968 single “Ball ‘n’ Chain” (Bay-Tone Records), aided by a cover from Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
By this time, Thornton moved from Houston to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she played clubs up and down the California coast and recorded songs with the Berkeley-based Arhoolie Records. This led her to tour Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. While overseas, Thornton recorded her first full length album, ‘Big Mama Thornton – In Europe,’ featuring blues veterans Buddy Guy (guitar), Fred Below (drums), Eddie Boyd (keyboards), Jimmy Lee Robinson (bass), and Walter “Shakey” Horton (harmonica). She followed up that album with ‘Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band’ in 1966. Again, Thornton was backed by blues heavyweights: Muddy Waters (guitar), Sammy Lawhorn (guitar), James Cotton (harmonica), Otis Spann (piano), Luther Johnson (bass guitar), and Francis Clay (drums).
In 1966 and ’68, Thornton performed at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival and in 1969 she signed with Mercury Records, which released her most successful album, ‘Stronger Than Dirt.’ She went on to achieve a long-time goal and released a gospel album in 1969 titled ‘Saved.’
By the 1970s, white rock bands were playing blues covers to big festival and arena crowds, while the original artists like Big Mama Thornton and others were relegated to playing their versions, the original versions, in smoky clubs. Thornton’s heavy drinking started to catch up with her at this time, and the once full-figured singer started to lose drastic amounts of weight.
Despite her declining health, Thornton continued to record and tour extensively, participating in festivals like the Juneteenth Blues Fest, the San Francisco Blues Festival, and the Newport Jazz Festival in 1980, where she shared the stage with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and many other blues legends.
On July 25, 1984, Thornton’s health caught up with her, and she passed away at age 57 in Los Angeles from heart and liver complications due to her long-standing alcohol abuse. Once a hefty 350 pounds, Thornton died weighing a skeletal 95 pounds.
Since her death, there have been countless compilation releases of her music and she has won many awards; she was even inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Her song “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.
Though it’s been 30 years since her death, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton remains one of the true legends of blues music and continues to be one of the most influential female singers of her generation. It’s a shame she had to endure so many hardships over the course of her career, but she will never be forgotten.
Rest in Peace, Big Mama!