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" (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 tapped into a liberated black feminist persona, through which she freed herself from many of the expectations of musical, lyrical, and physical practice for black women. 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 made it a point to use her voice to its full potential, once stating that she was louder than any mic and that she didn’t want a mic to ever be as loud as she was. Her big voice was something she became known for as an artist. Joplin’s biographer Alice Echols says that Thornton could sing in a "pretty voice," but insisted against it. Thornton said, "My singing comes from my experience…My own experience. I never had no one teach me nothin’. I never went to school for music or nothin’. I taught myself to sing and to blow harmonica and even to play drums by watchin’ other people! I can't read music, but I know what I'm singing! I don't sing like nobody but myself." 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 grew up listening to at the home of a preacher, though her genre could be described as blues. Thornton was quoted in a 1980 New York TImes article saying that, "when I was comin' up, listening to Bessie Smith and all, they sung from their heart and soul and expressed themselves. That's why when I do a song by Jimmy Reed or somebody, I have my own way of singing it. Because I don't want to be Jimmy Reed, I want to be me. I like to put myself into whatever I'm doin' so I can feel it".
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. Thornton did not care about the thoughts of others and "was openly gay and performed risque songs unabashedly." 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. Even Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin admired her unique style of singing and started to incorporate elements of that style into their own works. Her vocal sounds and style of delivery are key parts of her repertoire that are recognizable in Presley and Joplin's work.
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 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, also signed to Duke and Peacock record labels, accidentally shoot and kill himself while playing Russian roulette. 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 'n' 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. 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. She had always wanted to record a gospel record, and with the album Saved (PE 10005), she achieved that longtime goal. Thornton recorded 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.
Late Career & Death
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 for Vanguard Records in 1975. Other songs from the recording session were released in 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 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. 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 club scene. She was also part of the award-winning PBS television special Three Generations of the Blues with Sippie Wallace and Jeannie Cheatham. Thornton was found dead at age 57 by medical personnel in a Los Angeles boarding house on 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".
It wasn’t until Janis Joplin covered Thornton’s "Ball 'n' Chain," that it became a huge hit. Although Thornton didn’t receive compensation for her song, Joplin gave her the recognition she deserved by having Thornton open for her. Joplin actually found her singing voice through Thornton who even applauded her version of "Ball 'n' Chain" saying, "That girl feels like I do."
While Thornton has recently received more recognition for her popular songs she is still very under-appreciated for her influence on the blues and soul genres. Thornton’s music was also influential in shaping American popular music. The lack of appreciation she received for "Hound Dog" and "Ball 'n' Chain" as they became popular hits, is representative of lack of recognition she received for her career as a whole.
Many critics argue that Thornton’s lack of recognition in the music industry is a reflection of an era of racial segregation in the United States, both physically and in the music industry. Scholars suggest that Thornton’s lack of access to broader audiences (both white and black), may have been a barrier in the commercial success of Thornton as both a vocalist and composer.
The first full-length biography of Thornton "Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music" written by Michael Spörke has been published in 2014. 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.
Studio and 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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