Even if you’ve never heard Big Mama Thornton, born 86 years ago today, you’re probably familiar with some of her best-known songs. She was the first to record “Hound Dog,” written for her by Lieber and Stoller and later a big hit for Elvis Presley, and her song “Ball and Chain” later became a chart-topper for Janis Joplin.
Born on the outskirts of Montgomery, Alabama as one of seven siblings in 1926, like many entertainers of her generation, Willie Mae Thorton got her start singing in church. Her father was a Baptist minister and her mother sang in the choir. After winning a local singing contest at the age of 14, Thornton came to the attention of promoter Sammy Green and soon began her professional career by landing a spot on Green’s Georgia-based “Hot Harlem Review.” Billed as “The New Bessie Smith” she would tour the southeast with the group for seven years.
Thornton relocated to Houston to get off the road and take advantage of their burgeoning club scene. There she met bandleader Johnny Otis and promoter Don Robey, who were impressed that in addition to singing she could play harmonica and drums. In 1951, she was signed to her first record contract by Peacock Records (Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Little Richard and Memphis Slim would also record for the label). A year later, she was headlining shows at the Apollo Theatre, where she first became known as ‘Big Mama’ (Thornton was 6’0” and weighed over 300 pounds). In 1953, she would release the biggest hit of her career.
“Hound Dog” writers Lieber and Stoller – who would go on to write a slew of hits for acts as diverse as The Drifters, Elvis Presley, The Clovers, Peggy Lee and Stealers Wheel – were then just beginning their careers. In an interview with music critic Ralph Gleason, Thorton recalls, “They were just a couple of kids and they had the song written on the back of a paper bag.” She added a few lyrics and toyed with the rhythm. The song would go on to top the R&B charts for nine weeks after its release.
It sold upwards of 2 million copies, but Thornton saw little money from the recording, making only a flat fee of $500. When Elvis performed the song in 1956 on the Milton Berle show to a TV audience of 40 million, it helped launch him into superstardom.
By the late '50s, R&B was losing its record-selling power to rock 'n' roll, which consisted largely of white performers repackaging R&B songs with less-racy lyrics and targeted at teen audiences (just as Elvis had done with “Hound Dog”). After her record contract expired, Thornton relocated to San Francisco and began performing at blues clubs with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. She scraped by long enough to see renewed interest in the traditional blues, thanks largely to the influence of British artists like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones.
Her career had a second flowering in the late sixties, as she recorded and performed with blues icons like the Muddy Waters Blues Band, James Cotton, Otis Spann and Lightnin’ Hopkins. She played at the Monterey Jazz Festival and toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. In 1968, blues fan Janis Joplin covered “Ball ‘n’ Chain” on Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills album. The band performed the song twice at Woodstock when the audience demanded an encore.
Big Mama Thornton continued performing through the 1970s, but years of heavy drinking were began to take their toll. She also suffered injuries in a serious car wreck, but recovered enough to play at the 1983 Newport Jazz Festival. As her health continued to decline, by the time of her last performance in 1984, the once-robust Big Mama Thornton weighed less than 100 lbs, though her voice retained all its heft.
She died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on July 25, 1984, at the age of 57. That year, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. Today, she continues influencing young would-be performers at Brooklyn’s Willa Mae Rock Camp for Girls, a non-profit music and mentoring program.
Originally published December 2010