Big Mama Thornton

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Big Mama Thornton
Thornton Big Mama 01.jpg
Big Mama Thornton circa 1955-1960
Background information
Birth name Willie Mae Thornton
Born (1926-12-11)December 11, 1926
Origin Ariton, Alabama, United States
Died July 25, 1984(1984-07-25) (aged 57)
Los Angeles, California, United States
Genres Rhythm and blues, Texas blues
Occupations Singer, songwriter
Instruments Vocals, drums, harmonica
Years active 1947–1984
Labels Peacock, Arhoolie, Mercury, Pentagram, Backbeat, Vanguard, Ace Records (UK)
Associated acts Muddy Waters Blues Band, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker

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,[1] which became her biggest hit. It spent seven weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B charts in 1953[2] and sold almost two million copies.[3] However, her success was overshadowed three years later, when Elvis Presley recorded his more popular rendition of "Hound Dog".[4] Similarly, Thornton's "Ball 'n' Chain", had a bigger impact when performed and recorded by Janis Joplin in the late 1960s.


Early life[edit]

Thornton was born in Ariton, 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.[5] She joined Sammy Green's Georgia-based Hot Harlem Revue.[6] Her seven-year tenure with them, which included touring the South, gave her valuable singing and stage experience. 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.


In Houston, her career began to take off. 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 singing the song in the style they had envisioned.[7][8] The record was produced by Otis, and went to number one on the R&B chart.[9] Although the record made her a star, she saw little of the profits.[10] In 1954, Thornton was one of the eyewitnesses to the accidental self-inflicted handgun death of blues singer Johnny Ace.[11] She continued to record for Peacock until 1957 and performed with R&B package tours with Junior Parker and Esther Phillips.

As her career began to fade in the late 1950s and early 1960s,[1] she left Houston and relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she mostly played local blues clubs and began an association with Berkeley-based Arhoolie Records. In 1965, she toured with the American Folk Blues Festival package in Europe.[12] 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 and Big 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 career.

By 1969, she signed with Mercury Records, who released her most successful album Stronger Than Dirt, which reached number 198 in the Billboard Top 200 record chart. 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. One of Thornton's last albums was Jail for Vanguard Records in 1975. It 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.

In 1979, she performed at the San Francisco Blues Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival in 1980. Thornton continued to work the blues festival circuit until her death of a heart attack in Los Angeles on July 25, 1984, at age 57.[13]


During her career, she was nominated for the Blues Music Awards six times.[14] 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.[15] Her "Ball 'n' Chain" is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll".[16] The first biography about Big Mama Thornton will be published in 2014. [17]


Studio & live albums[edit]

Year Title Label
1965 Big Mama Thornton — In Europe Arhoolie
1966 Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Water Blues Band Arhoolie
1969 Stronger Than Dirt Mercury
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


Year Title Label
1968 Ball N' Chain Arhoolie


  1. ^ a b Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. p. 177. ISBN 1-85868-255-X. 
  2. ^ Billboard: History about the song Hound Dog
  3. ^ University of Texas: Willa Mae Thornton
  4. ^ a b Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 7 - The All American Boy: Enter Elvis and the rock-a-billies. [Part 1]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. 
  5. ^ "[Unidentified article], at p. 1845, Kwame Anthony Appiah & Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Basic Civitas Books, (1999) - ISBN 0-465-00071-1
  6. ^ Santelli, Robert. The Big Book of Blues, Penguin Books, page 464, (2001) - ISBN 0-14-100145-3
  7. ^ Hound Dog - The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography. pages 61-65
  8. ^ Rooks, Rikky. Lyrics: Writing Better Words for Your Songs, Backbeat Books, page 171, (2006) - ISBN 0-87930-885-0
  9. ^ Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits, Billboard Books, - ISBN 0-8230-7677-6
  10. ^ Santelli, Robert. The Big Book of Blues, page 464
  11. ^ Account of Johnny Ace's death
  12. ^ American Folk Blues Festival 1962
  13. ^
  14. ^ Blues Music Awards Database for Big Mama Thornton
  15. ^ Jessie Carney, Smith. Notable Black American Women, Gale Research, page 642, (2003) - ISBN 0-8103-9177-5
  16. ^ "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll". Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 1995. Retrieved May 10, 2013. 
  17. ^ Big Mama Thornton.The Life and Music. McFarland Inc. ISBN 978-0-7864-7759-3

External links[edit]