Big Mama Thornton

Big Mama Thornton (December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984)

Featured Recordings Ball And Chain

Hound Dog

 

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was an American rhythm and blues singer and songwriter. She was the first to record the hit song “Hound Dog” in 1952. The song was #1 on the Billboard R&B charts for seven weeks. The B-side was “They Call Me Big Mama,” and the single sold almost two million copies. Three years later, Elvis Presley recorded his version, based on a version performed by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. In a similar occurrence, she wrote and recorded “Ball ‘n’ Chain,” which became a hit for her. Janis Joplin later recorded “Ball and Chain,” and was a huge success in the late 1960s.

Biography

Early life

Thornton was born in Montgomery, Alabama. 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. Thornton left Montgomery at age 14 in 1941, following her mother’s death. She joined Sammy Green’s Georgia-based Hot Harlem Revue.Her seven-year tenure with them gave her valuable singing and stage experience, and enabled her to tour the South. In 1948, she settled in Houston, Texas, where she hoped to further her career as a singer.

She was also a self-taught drummer and harmonica player, and frequently played each instrument onstage.

Career

Thornton began her recording career in Houston, signing a recording contract with Peacock Records in 1951. While working with another Peacock artist, Johnny Otis, she recorded “Hound Dog”, a song that composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had given her in Los Angeles. The record was produced by Johnny Otis, and went to number one on the R&B chart. Although the record made her a star, she saw little of the profits. She continued to record for Peacock until 1957 and performed with R&B package tours with Junior Parker and Esther Phillips. In 1954, Thornton was one of the eyewitnesses to the accidental self-inflicted handgun death of blues singer Johnny Ace.

Thornton’s account was, that Johnny was sitting with girlfriend Olivia on his lap, waving his pistol around, pointing it at Willie Mae. “Don’t snap that on me,” she told him. Johnny grinned and put the gun to Olivia’s head. “Stop that, Johnny, you’ll git someone killed,” Willie Mae shouted at him. “Nothin’ to worry about,” Johnny replied, coolly, “ain’t but one bullet here and I know exactly where it is.” He turned the gun on himself, put it to his temple and pulled the trigger.

Her career began to fade in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She left Houston and relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she mostly played local blues clubs.

In 1966, Thornton recorded Big Mama Thornton With The Muddy Waters Blues Band, with Muddy Waters (guitar), Sammy Lawhorn (guitar), James Cotton (harmonica), Otis Spann (piano), Luther Johnson (bass guitar), and Francis Clay (drums). Songs included “Everything Gonna Be Alright”, “Big Mama’s Blues”, “I’m Feeling Alright”, “Big Mama’s Bumble Bee Blues”, “Looking The World Over”, “Big Mama’s Shuffle”, and “Since I Fell For You”, amongst others.

Her Ball ‘n’ Chain album in 1968, recorded with Lightnin’ Hopkins (guitar) and Larry Williams (vocals), included the songs “Hound Dog”, “Wade in the Water”, “Little Red Rooster”, “Ball ‘n’ Chain”, “Money Taker”, and “Prison Blues”.

One of Thornton’s last albums was Jail (1975) for Vanguard Records. It captured her performances during a couple of mid 1970s concerts at two northwestern prisons. She became the talented leader of a blues ensemble that featured sustained jams from George “Harmonica” Smith, as well as guitarists Doug Macleod, B. Huston and Steve Wachsman, drummer Todd Nelson, saxophonist Bill Potter, bassist Bruce Sieverson, and pianist J.D. Nicholson.

Thornton performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 and 1968, and at the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1979. In 1965 she performed with the American Folk Blues Festival package in Europe. While in England that year, she recorded Big Mama Thornton in Europe and followed it up the next year in San Francisco with Big Mama Thornton with the Chicago Blues Band. Both albums came out on the Arhoolie label. Thornton continued to record for Vanguard, Mercury, and other small labels in the 1970s and to work the blues festival circuit until her death in 1984, the same year she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

During her career, she appeared on stages from New York City’s Apollo Theater in 1952 to the Newport Jazz Festival in 1980, and was nominated for the Blues Music Awards six times. In addition to “Ball ‘n’ Chain” and “They Call Me Big Mama,” Thornton wrote twenty other blues songs.

In the 1970s years of heavy drinking began to hurt Ms. Thornton’s health. She was in a serious auto accident and recovered to perform at the 1983 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 on Buddha Records. Ms. Thornton died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on July 25, 1984, at age 57.

Legacy

In 2007, in the movie, Hounddog, singer Jill Scott played Thornton.

Thornton is also the namesake of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls.

 

Discography

 

Year Title Label
1964 Big Mama Thornton in Europe Arhoolie
1966 Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Water Blues Band Arhoolie
1969 Stronger Than Dirt Arhoolie
1970 The Way It Is Mercury
1970 Maybe Roulette Records
1970 She’s Back Backbeat
1973 Saved Backbeat
1975 Jail (Live) Vanguard
1975 Sassy Mama! (Live) Vanguard
1978 Mama’s Pride Vanguard


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