Big Mama Thornton
|Big Mama Thornton|
Big Mama Thornton circa 1955-1960
|Birth name||Willie Mae Thornton|
|Born||December 11, 1926|
|Origin||Ariton, Alabama, United States|
|Died||July 25, 1984
Los Angeles, California, United States
|Genres||Rhythm and blues, Texas blues|
|Instruments||Vocals, drums, harmonica|
|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, 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" 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. Many collaborators described her with words such as monstrous, intimidating, formidable, and menacing. 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.
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. 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. In her early teens she moved to Atlanta, Georgia where she appeared as a dancer in a variety show; subsequently, in the early '40s, she became a member of Sammy Green's Hot Harlem Review. 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.
Thornton's deep, forceful voice had no trace of her roots in Alabama, where she wasn’t as accepted as she was in the blues community. 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 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. 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 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. Mercury 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. 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.
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 eighteen.
The first full-length biography of Thornton will be published in 2014.
Studio & live albums
|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|
|1975||Sassy Mama! (Live)||Vanguard|
|1968||Ball N' Chain||Arhoolie|
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