Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton was born in Ariton, Alabama on December 11, 1926, so today would have been her 90th birthday. She died alone and in poverty on July 25, 1984 in a Los Angeles boarding house.
She was exposed to music at a young age in the church where her father was a minister, and grew up singing in its choir, along with her mother and six siblings. When Thornton was only 14 years old, her mother died, and she took a job in a saloon to help make ends meet at home. Music promoter Sammy Green soon discovered Thornton and recruited her to join his Atlanta-based Hot Harlem Revue. She remained with the group for seven years, contributing drum and harmonica parts to the show as well as vocals. In 1948, she settled in Houston, Texas, determined to advance her career as a singer.
Thornton succeeded in making professional inroads in Houston, and in 1951 she signed a contract with Peacock Records—her first recording deal. The following year, she recorded the song "Hound Dog," which would be her biggest hit. Authorship of the song is a matter of dispute, however. Both Johnny Otis, who produced the track, and the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have claimed credit for the song. In 1953, "Hound Dog" reached number one on the R&B charts, making Thornton a star. The song was also a hit for Elvis Presley, whose 1956 cover targeted a young, white audience. Unlike Presley, however, Thornton received little compensation for her chart-topping performance.
In the 1997 Ebony Magazine article by Keven Chappell titled “How blacks invented rock and roll: R&B stars created foundations of multibillion-dollar music industry,” the piece opens with a reference to Big Mama and Elvis.
Before Elvis Presley sang “Hound Dog,” Big Mama Thornton has house-trained that canine. Before Bill Haley & the Comets popularized “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” Big Joe Turner had done all three. The Crewcuts’ “Sh-Boom” was originally sung by The Chords, and The Beatles’ “Roll over Betthoven” was rocked by Chuck Berry well before the boys from Liverpool “invaded” America.
It continues to be the biggest lie in the music industry—that Whites created rock ‘n roll. From history books to rock-oriented cafes, from the pretentious Graceland mansion to the corner record store, White rock ‘n roll artists have been immortalized and credited with creating the multibillion-dollar rock music industry.
Lost is the reality that rock ‘n roll was actually born out of the belly of Black blues music and raised by Black artists in the 1950s smoke-filled clubs along Beale Street in Memphis 47th Street in Chicago and 125th Street in Harlem. Only years later, when White teenagers began openly digging the electric guitars and the pounding drum beats that Black artists were playing—a sound their parents had disparagingly labeled “race” and “rhythm and blues” music—did White disc jockey Alan Freed re-name it “rock ‘n roll,” and white artists entered the lucrative field without stigma.
There’s irony in the fact that British musicians returned black music to the U.S.—albeit in a different-colored package.
Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music by Michael Spörke is one of the few full biographies written about her.
You ain't nothing but a "Hound Dog" ... with these words shouted into the microphone she will always be remembered: Big Mama Thornton. Who is this woman who sang the megahit "Hound Dog" before Elvis Presley and who wrote "Ball & Chain," the song that catapulted Janis Joplin to sudden fame? The story begins with her first musical attempts in the Hot Harlem Revue as a girl of 14. Then the book follows her journey into the Mecca of Texas Blues, Houston, where Big Mama Thornton met Johnny Otis, with whom she recorded her greatest success--"Hound Dog." With the slowdown of the blues in the early sixties this book follows Big Mama Thornton's way to California, discusses her struggle to survive and celebrates her impressive musical comeback in the course of the blues revival and the hippie movement. With the end of the sixties, facing a declining interest in the old school blues, the book shows how Big Mama Thornton found her niche in clubs and festivals in the U.S. and Europe. The book then follows Big Mama Thornton through the seventies and eighties until her untimely death.
In her review of the book for the ARSC Journal, Elizabeth Hille Cribbs wrote:
Sporke's book proceeds chronologically through Thornton's life while allowing some deviations from the general timeline to provide context behind the issues, persons, industries, and movements that had a significant impact on Thornton's career. Sporke divides the book into chapters that align with the significant periods in her performing career: the early years and how she started performing in Atlanta; her travels to Houston and her recording of "Hound Dog"; her move from Texas to California and how her success at the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival led to her performance at the German-based American Folk Blues Festival in 1965; the first of her European tours; how Joplin popularized "Ball and Chain"; her transition into rock music that coincided with managerial issues and the impact that those difficulties had on her career; her second European tour in 1972 and the toll that illness and alcohol started to take on her body; and finally her touring and performance work from the mid-seventies until her death in 1984.
Throughout the book, Sporke provides in-depth background explanations that give often-crucial context to the performance details that remain the central focus. A reader using this text will learn about Thornton and her incredibly impactful career, but they will also begin to understand some of the ugly realities of race relations and their constraints and impact on African American performers during Thornton's career. Readers will also see the importance of lesser-known performance venues such as the Bronze Peacock and the Eldorado Ballroom in Houston and the "chitlin [performing] circuit" in the South, and they will also realize how the European love for jazz and blues revitalized Thornton's career.
Understanding these elements is crucial to seeing why "Big Mama" Thornton is such a towering influence on twentieth-century popular music, and Sporke combines contextual explanations with copious performance details taken from primary sources such as performance and recording reviews and interviews with Thornton and over fifty of her contemporaries. Because Sporke was limited to the interviews and primary source materials that he could find and use, not all aspects of Thornton's life receive equally in-depth treatment. However, the tone of the book remains even and fair, and Sporke wields the power that these resources provide with sensitivity and insight.
Analyzing Thornton’s life and work from a more sociopolitical perspective, feminist scholar Minnie Bruce Pratt wrote a recent article titled “‘BIG MAMA’ THORNTON and reparations:”
You have probably heard of Elvis Presley and perhaps even heard him sing, “I ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” This was ”the signature song” that propelled him to fame and estimated lifetime earnings of $4.3 billion. It is less likely you have heard of Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. She first recorded “Hound Dog” in 1952 and received $500 in payment, her only earnings from the song.The discrepancy between their fates has been described as “perhaps the most notorious example of the inequity that often existed when a black original was covered by a white artist,” says the Encyclopedia of Alabama. But the difference between Thornton and Presley is more than “inequity.”
This is injustice — pointing to the need for reparations to African-American people for the theft of Black music. An article titled “For Old Rhythm-and-Blues, Respect and Reparations,” published in the New York Times on March 1, 1997, describes the theft so shameful and pervasive that the Rhythm & Blues Foundation has been forced out of music corporations like Atlantic Records and Time-Warner.The foundation money — far less than “reparations” — assists older African- American R&B artists who received few or no royalties from corporations and are now unable to pay medical bills and rent.
“Ball and Chain” was named by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.” But in 1984, the year Thornton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, she died in poverty in Los Angeles.
Anthropologist Maureen Mahon, author of Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race, wrote “Listening for Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton's Voice: The Sound of Race and Gender Transgressions in Rock and Roll,” published in the journal Women & Music.
She speaks to her own interest in exploring Thornton:
(Black) Feminist Perspectives on Rock-and-Roll History
My motivation for exploring Thornton's rock-and-roll legacy stems in part from a frustration with the marginal position black women occupy in mainstream histories of the genre--for example, in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll and multipart television documentaries produced by Time-Life and PBS during the 1990s. (1) Within these narratives, assumptions about musical genre and social identity come together in ways that are problematic for black women; the narratives position white male artists at the center of the story as the real rock and rollers and overlook black women's impact on rock and roll. In recent years, race-conscious feminist scholars have examined the involvement of women in a range of musical endeavors and explored the ways factors like race, class, and sexuality shape their experiences.
She goes on to note:
Before telling these stories I want to comment on a common assumption about Thornton's sexuality. One of the first things that many colleagues have said when I mention that I am researching Thornton is, "You know she was a lesbian." Actually, having been unable to locate any material documenting her sexual or romantic relationships, I don't know this. My interviews with several people who knew and worked with Thornton in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s yielded stories about men with whom she was involved but no mentions of female partners. Thornton was a private person, and no one I spoke with claimed that they knew her really well. Consequently, for the purposes of this article and to avoid wrongly closeting or outing Thornton, I defer discussion of her private life and instead focus on her public image. Here, she was a transgressor par excellence. Thornton made a conscious choice to present herself onstage in ways that many thought signaled that she was a lesbian. I find it difficult to imagine that she would have been unaware of this possibility, so what is significant to me is that she was comfortable projecting this image--mostly a result of her decision to appear onstage in pants and work shirts and sometimes in men's suits--in the years before gay liberation. In other words, she didn't try to appear straight. These choices are evidence of an unconventional, transgressive, and liberated form of black femininity that rejects prevailing expectations of how women should comport themselves to secure respectability. Steeped in working-class, African American blues culture and possessing a powerful sense of self, Thornton followed her muse in terms of musical, interpersonal, and sartorial choices--a textbook example of rock-and-roll attitude and speaking clearly in one's own voice.
No one has been able to pin down Thornton’s sexuality in contrast to much of the “out” history of blues artists like Ma Rainey, who is one of the musicians explored in “Singing the Lesbian Blues in 1920s Harlem.”
Author Lisa Hix writes about the social context of the time period:
The blues itself was condemned by black preachers. After the turn of the century, smokey blues cabarets proliferated in urban areas with large African American populations, which would draw almost exclusively black audiences, who made Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith stars. (The Cotton Club in Harlem, which only allowed white audience members to watch black performers, was a notable exception.) By the 1920s, record labels like Decca, Columbia, Paramount, and RCA were producing shellac 78s targeted toward African American consumers, known as “race records,” and these included popular blues tunes.
Around the same time, urban industrialization, the development of the electrical grid, and the introduction of cars gave young women more personal money, free time, and options than they ever had before. In the late 1910s, so-called “flappers” rejected the constricting corsets of their Victorian mothers, wearing short haircuts and skin-exposing dresses that were both androgynous and provocative. These women went out dancing and drinking at clubs, and embraced promiscuity.
It’s likely that the flapper movement took some cues from these blues divas, who were on the cutting edge of that sexual revolution in the 1910s, flouting conventions about proper women left and right. “They drank, and they dressed in a flashy and flamboyant manner,” Philipson says. “They were not subservient to men in any fashion, and that was not the model of post-Victorian womanhood that was in mainstream culture at the turn of the century.
The racier recordings of blues artists were not played in my home when I was growing up. It wasn’t until I was older—in my early 30s, working at radio station WPFW-FM, and exploring the music of female blues and jazz artists, that I heard Ma Rainey and Gladys Bentley. The station hosted Sophie's Parlor, the oldest women's radio collective on-air, and they played a lot of blues.
As a music lover, I am grateful to Smithsonian Folkways for their work in preserving the legacy of artists like Big Mama and so many others.
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States. We are dedicated to supporting cultural diversity and increased understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound. We believe that musical and cultural diversity contributes to the vitality and quality of life throughout the world. Through the dissemination of audio recordings and educational materials we seek to strengthen people's engagement with their own cultural heritage and to enhance their awareness and appreciation of the cultural heritage of others. Smithsonian Folkways is part of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
Our mission is the legacy of Moses Asch, who founded Folkways Records in 1948 to document "people's music," spoken word, instruction, and sounds from around the world. The Smithsonian acquired Folkways from the Asch estate in 1987, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has continued the Folkways commitment to cultural diversity, education, increased understanding, and lively engagement with the world of sound.
For those of you who are fans of the blues, this year the Smithsonian acquired Arhoolie Records.
The collection features seminal recordings by artists such as Bukka White, Big Mama Thornton, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Big Joe Williams, Flaco Jiménez, and Clifton Chenier. More recent releases include those by the Savoy Family Band, the Magnolia Sisters, and the Pine Leaf Boys. Hear Me Howling, a collection of recordings made in the Bay-area in the 1960s, won a GRAMMY award in 2011. In the same year, the label issued a GRAMMY-nominated retrospective box set celebrating Arhoolie’s 50th anniversary.
If you are new to blues, or to Big Mama, there’s no better introduction than her live album with Muddy Waters.
Many people who grew up during the ‘60s were fans of Janis Joplin, Big Brother, and the Holding Company. Joplin, who covered Big Mama’s Ball and Chain, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Big Mama is not.
As I mentioned earlier, many British artists took the U.S. charts by storm with their renditions of black blues. The flip side to that is that Europe has offered appreciative audiences and venues for black American musicians, artists. and writers for many decades.
Big Mama Thornton in Europe
Recorded live on October 20, 1965 in London, England.
Big Mama Thornton - Vocals,Buddy Guy - Lead Guitar, Eddie Boyd - Organ,Fred Below - Drums Jimmy Lee Robinson - Bass
Today, I celebrate her music, and the music of all those women who have sung and continue to sing the blues.