Big Mama Thornton - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


            Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton was one of the toughest blues belters ever,  an artist who paid dues as a youthful performer touring on the hardscrabble chitlin’ circuit and had to claw her way through the shadowy rhythm & blues jungle until she eventually made it to the top. On tough numbers like "I Smell a Rat," Thornton delivered a powerhouse vocal that combined a dramatic, biting style with a palpable sense of scorn and misfortune so effectively that it's surprising that she didn't have more hit records. The one chart topper she's best known for, Leiber and Stoller’s "Hound Dog," was a monster hit both for Thornton (whose version spent fourteen weeks on the Billboard rhythm & blues chart and made it all the way to number one in 1953) and of course Elvis Presley, whose cover sold millions in 1956. His success with the song would permanently color her attitude and career. The fact that her "Ball and Chain" was later made famous by Janis Joplin only embittered her further.  She was also haunted by the apparent suicide of rhythm & blues idol Johnny Ace, a singer with whom she had a close relationship. She carried Ace's pistol with her ("it was just a little bitty thing," she said) for the rest of her life, contributing to her almost mythic status within the lurid rhythm & blues pantheon.


            Born Willie Mae Thornton, December 11, 1926, in Montgomery, Alabama, she was a preacher's daughter who got plenty of experience singing alongside her mother in church. By age fourteen, the Devil's music seemed her preferred style and when a first place win at a local talent contest brought her to the attention of entertainer Sammy Green, she accepted an invitation to join his Georgia-based Hot Harlem Revue in 1941. She stayed with the itinerant troupe of entertainers for seven years, working for the infamous Theatrical Owners Booking Agency, a company that specialized exclusively in African-American talent (known as TOBA, it was the key operation for those wanting to play the chitlin’ circuit and performers frequently joked that the acronym really stood for "Tough on Black Asses"). Thornton's was a rough and tumble existence, jumping from town to town along the Gulf Coast and throughout the Southeast, but it also provided her with invaluable performing experience.


            Along the way, Thornton taught herself and mastered drums and (with some assistance from fellow troupe member Little Junior Parker) harmonica, both of which she incorporated into her act. She also soaked up more than a few tricks of the trade, often at the knee of blues empresses like Memphis Minnie. At 22, she quit the revue after a hassle over money and settled in Houston, Texas, working in local bars and club alongside future stars like Parker, Lightning Hopkins, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Lowell Fulson. In 1948, the post-war demand for "race records" was exploding with such popularity that pressing plants could barely keep up with the buyers. With a heavy duty style drawn from the likes of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey yet updated with her own exuberant, youthful energy; Thornton had what it took to make in the record business. She landed a steady singing job at the El Dorado Club, and by 1951 signed a contract with hard-headed showman/hustler Don Robey's Peacock label. The first session, backed by trumpeter Joe Scott's eight piece rhythm & blues band, produced "Partnership Blues" and "Mischievous Boogie," along with several other titles that made little impact. When she traveled to Los Angeles for an August 1952 session with famed bandleader Johnny Otis, everything fell into place. Otis's white teenage protégés, Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller, brought in a rough draft of "Hound Dog." Before long, they worked out an arrangement (Otis was listed as a co-writer initially and Thornton later claimed she had an active hand in finishing the song). With Otis on vibes and Thornton hollering, testifying and tearing it up, they cut a hit record – one that stayed at number one for a full seven weeks early the following year. Despite its runaway success, the only money Thornton ever saw from "Hound Dog" was the $500 that Robey paid her up front for the studio date.


            A triumphant engagement at Harlem's Apollo Theater followed, where she opened as a warm-up act, only to be switched to headliner status the next night. Considering the Harlem audience's reputation as the toughest crowd in the world, this was no small feat and it was they who bestowed the “Big Mama” nickname upon her. She then entered the most successful period of her professional life. Thornton, with her steely pipes and fluent grasp of the old school blues empresses’ artful pathology, was quite different from the fast-rising coven of rhythm & blues sisters. Where Ruth Brown, Little Esther and LaVern Baker made their mark with jaunty numbers, Big Mama worked down at the bottom, crying a hot, persuasive and emotionally charged hard blues style that was as forceful as it was instantly recognizable.


            Eclipsed midway by Presley's recording of "Hound Dog" (which strangely was inspired not by Thornton, but by Vegas lounge act Freddie Bell & the Bell Boys’ arrangement), Thornton soldiered on, maintaining a steady string of bookings and strong new records at Peacock. However, in 1957, she left the label claiming, "Peacock cheated me. After they gypped me, I ups and quit and stayed quit." She cut a series of one-off singles for California indies like Oakland's Big Tone and Los Angeles' Sotoplay and Kent. She created a sensation at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1964, accompanied by The Muddy Waters Blues Band, and turned the tables on the British Invasion by touring the lucrative European circuit with a package revue, the American Folk Blues Festival. Significantly, she also made a deal with upstart East Bay blues-folk label Arhoolie Records, which resulted in some superb albums, Big Mama Thornton in Europe (Arhoolie-1965), the all star Big Mama Thornton with the Chicago Blues Band (Arhoolie-1967), and the one that caught Janis Joplin's ear, Big Mama Thornton: Ball N' Chain (Arhoolie-1968). Despite her bumpy path, Thornton was at the top of her game, casually delivering vocal performances characterized by a knock out mix of sheer audacity, jazz-like spontaneity and craftily controlled dynamism.


            Thornton, just like the protagonist of “Hound Dog,” saw herself as a woman wronged. Understandably, she grew increasingly bitter; frequently griping about Elvis Presley, Don Robey and Janis Joplin (at least she managed to outlive them all). By the early 1980s, her fabled outsize figure had long since dwindled to little more than flesh and bones. Habitually dressed in cowboy boots, a Stetson hat and a man's double breasted suit; she looked more like a Houston rounder than an empress of the blues. Her live shows, while decidedly uneven, were always mesmerizing and Thornton's blues were increasingly fraught with glacial misery. At times things got down right eerie as she'd begin reminiscing about Johnny Ace, then use the microphone to pantomime a firearm with which she would blast imaginary bullets into her audience. But she was playing the joints, a depressing series of poorly paying jobs at crummy hole-in-the-wall saloons where she rarely drew more than a hundred or so attendees. Non-stop heavy drinking (gin and milk being her preferred tipple) scarcely helped matters. Berkeley boutique imprint Vanguard Records nobly stepped up to record and release what would turn out to be her final album, Sassy Mama (Vanguard-1982), but it was too little too late. The chronically unhappy singer began working less and less, boozing more and more. Her saturated liver was barely able to function and her weight dropped to ninety pounds. Though she was not yet sixty years of age, her gaunt frame and ravaged visage made her look years older. Jaundiced and alone, Thornton was felled by a heart attack at a Los Angeles boarding house on July 25, 1984. She was posthumously inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame later that year.


Steve Earle and the Dukes
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