"Big Mama" Thornton

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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. 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.




Early life

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 was a better known place than Ariton 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

Thornton left school and got a job washing and cleaning spittoons in the local tavern. In 1940 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[4] 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. On Christmas day 1954 in a Houston,

Texas theatre she witnessed fellow performer Johnny Ace accidentally shoot himself to death while playing with a gun. 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.


As her career began to fade in the late 1950s and early 1960s, she left Houston and relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, "playing clubs in

San Francisco and L.A. and recording for a succession of labels", notably Berkeley-based Arhoolie Records. In 1965, she toured with the

American Folk Blues Festival package in Europe, where her success was notable "because very few female blues singers at that time had ever

enjoyed success across the Atlantic." While in England that year, she recorded her first album for Arhoolie, titled Big Mama Thornton – In

Europe. It featured backing by blues veterans Buddy Guy (guitar), Fred Below (drums), Eddie Boyd(keyboards), Jimmy Lee Robinson (bass), and

Walter "Shakey" Horton (harmonica), except for three songs on which Fred McDowell provided acoustic slide guitar.


In 1966, Thornton recorded her second album for Arhoolie titled Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band – 1966, with Muddy Waters

(guitar), Sammy Lawhorn (guitar), James Cotton (harmonica), Otis Spann(piano), Luther Johnson (bass guitar), and Francis Clay (drums). She

performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 and 1968. Her last album for Arhoolie, Ball n' Chain, was released in 1968. It was made up of

tracks from her two previous albums, plus her composition "Ball and Chain" and the standard "Wade in the Water". A small combo including her

frequent guitarist Edward "Bee" Houston provided backup for the two songs. Janis Joplin andBig Brother and the Holding Company's performance of

"Ball 'n' Chain" at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and release of the song on their number one album Cheap Thrills renewed interest in Thornton's



By 1969, she signed with Mercury Records. Mercury released her most successful album, Stronger Than Dirt, which reached number 198 in the

Billboard Top 200 record chart. Thornton had now signed a contract with Pentagram Records and could finally fulfill one of her biggest dreams. A

blues woman and the daughter of a preacher, Thornton loved the blues and what she called the “good singing” of gospel artists like the Dixie

Hummingbirds and Mahalia Jackson. That’s why she always wanted to record a gospel record. And of course Thornton really had the power to sing

those gospel songs, and with the album called Saved (PE 10005), she achieved her longtime goal. You can hear the gospel classics “Oh, Happy

Day,” “Down By The Riverside,” “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands,” “Lord Save Me,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,”

“One More River” and “Go Down Moses” on this LP


By now the American blues revival had come to an end. While the original blues acts like Big Mama Thornton mostly played smaller venues,

younger people played their versions of blues in massive arenas for big money. Since the blues had seeped into other genres of music, the blues

musician no longer needed impoverishment or geography for substantiation; the style was enough. While at home the offers became fewer and

smaller, things changed for good in 1972. Again, like seven years before, the reason was a call from Europe.

Thornton was asked to rejoin the

American Folk Blues Festival tour and, since she always thought of Europe as a very good place for her and given the lack of engagements in the

U.S. she agreed happily. Thus, on March 2, the tour brought Big Mama Thornton to Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands,

Denmark, Norway, and Finland ending on March 27 in Stockholm. With her on the bill were Eddie Boyd, Big Joe Williams, Robert Pete Williams, T-

Bone Walker, Paul Lenart, Hartley Severns, Edward Taylor and Vinton Johnson. As in 1965 they garnered recognition and respect from other great

musicians who wanted to see them In the 1970s, years of heavy drinking began to hurt Thornton's health. She was in a serious auto accident, but

recovered to perform at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival with Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, a recording of which is called

The Blues—A Real Summit Meeting released by Buddha Records. Thornton's last albums were Jail and Sassy Mama forVanguard Records in 1975.

Other songs from the recording session were released in the 2000 under the name Big Mama Swings.

Jail captured her performances during mid-

1970s concerts at two Northwestern U.S. prisons. She was backed by a blues ensemble that featured sustained jams from George "Harmonica"

Smith, as well as guitarists Doug Macleod, Bee Houston and Steve Wachsman, drummer Todd Nelson, saxophonist Bill Potter, bassist Bruce

Sieverson, and pianist J. D. Nicholson.

She toured intensive through the US and Canada, played at the Juneteenth Blues Fest in Houston and shared

the bill with John Lee Hooker. In 1979, she performed at theSan Francisco Blues Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival in 1980. In the early 1970s,

Thornton's sexual proclivities became a question among blues fans. Big Mama also performed in the Blues Is A Woman concert that year,

alongside classic blues legend Sippie Wallace, sporting a man's 3-piece suit, straw hat, and gold watch. She sat at stage center and played the

pieces she wanted to play that were not on the program.

Big Mama Thornton took part in the Tribal Stomp at Monterey Fairgrounds, Third Annual

Sacramento Blues Festival, the Los Angeles Bicentennial Blues with BB King and Muddy Waters, was guest at an ABC-TV Special hosted by actor Hal

Holbrook joined by Aretha Franklin and toured through the clubscene. She was also part of the award-winning PBS television special Three

Generations of the Blues with Sippie Wallace and Jeannie Cheatham. Thornton died at age 57 in Los Angeles July 25, 1984 of heart and liver

complications due to her long-standing alcohol abuse. Her weight dropped from 350 to 95 pounds within a short period of time; that is a total of 255

pounds that she lost because of her critical condition.




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


The first full-length biography of Thornton "Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music" written by Michael Spörke has been published in 2014.




The Forum post is edited by bninna Aug 12 '15
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