Big Mama Thornton - Photo by Dick Waterman (All Rights Reserved)


Big Mama Thornton
(1926 – 1984)

“Big Mama” Thornton was a large, tall, imposing woman that commanded the stage and took charge of everything and everyone around her.  She was known to take no lip from anyone at any time.  She was also a woman that knew the blues and could sing the blues with a power to match and even surpass many noted male singers. 

 Born Willie Mae Thornton December 11, 1926 and one of seven children, Willie was the daughter of a minister father and church singing mother.  She knew that she wanted to perform at an early age.  At the age of 14, she traveled with the Hot Harlem Revue where she performed for seven years. 

She moved to Texas in 1948 and worked in the local clubs. In the early 1950s, Big Mama signed with the Peacock label.  It is there that she was the first to record “Hound Dog” in 1953.   Written by composers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller and given directly to her to sing, the song reached number one on the R&B charts. According to the Handbook of Texas Online, Big Mama received only $500 for her entire life recording “Hound Dog”, while Elvis Presley went on to make it a Rock and Roll classic three years later. The same occurrence happened with the other most recognized Thornton song “Ball ‘n Chain.”  A hit for Big Mama, “Ball n‘Chain” is most associated with the late singer Janis Joplin.    During the late 50’s, Big Mama saw real success, but unfortunately and like so many other African American performers during this time, saw little of the money she made. 

Big Mama moved to San Francisco, California in the early 1960’s.  She saw a decline in her record sales, but continued to record and perform.  In 1965, she toured Europe with the American Folk Music Festival and recorded an album in England.  Big Mama recorded for the Arhoolie, Vanguard, Mercury and various other smaller labels.  She died in Los Angeles, CA in 1984 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year.

Big Mama’s contributions to the blues cannot be underestimated.  She has influenced many singers and worked with most of the greats of the Chicago blues.

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Big Mama Thornton

©2003 Lea A. Gilmore and P.W. Fenton, All Rights Reserved.