Willie Mae Thornton, known as Big Mama Thornton to her fans, was a singer, songwriter, and harmonica player bringing sweet rhythm and blues tunes to millions of ears at the height of the genre’s popularity in the 50’s and 60’s. A well developed sense of self and a deep and powerful voice made her recognizable to her adoring fans, a voice known to be louder than any microphone, just how she liked it!
This legacy of a strong personality and sound, in conjunction with the funky harmonica that accompanied her, set her apart from other performers at the time and made her stand out among the crowd in the rich history of blues singers we know and love today. Born in 1926 in Ariton, Alabama, she grew up surrounded by a culture that was essential to the creation and development of a multitude of music genres.
Alongside her six siblings she learned an appreciation for music at a young age in the walls of the church where her father was a minister and her mother a singer. After losing her mother early in life, Willie Mae worked in a tavern cleaning spittoons to help support her family. Not long after, however, she left home to join Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue after being discovered by fellow blues and gospel singer Diamond Teeth Mary. This was the first step towards a great future and career!
Her next move brought her to Houston, Texas in 1948 where a new and funky blues sound was growing in popularity in the clubs and theaters in the area. Opportunities opened up for her there, and soon she was signed to a recording contract with Peacock Records in 1951.
Did Elvis Steal “Hound Dog”?
Her success was phenomenal as her unique sound wowed listeners from the East coast to the West coast, selling more than half a million copies and topping the R&B charts! Today Elvis’ version is more well known, selling ten million copies when it was released, but originally Big Mama Thornton made the song what it was in the day; an anthem for black female power.
Controversies around the drastic difference in popularity between versions of the song have arisen as some feel more recognition was warranted for Thornton’s version, seeing as it came first and wasn’t the only occurrence of a lack of credit, and thus a lack of profit, for her and her career.
In another instance, one of her songs, “Ball’n Chain” was recorded for Bay-Tone Records in the 1960’s, but never released. In the 70’s, Janis Joplin recorded a version of the song that was released that Thornton never saw royalties from due to the copyright. Later it was found that full permission was given to Joplin by Thornton herself, but the events were still seen as an injustice to her career as a whole, much like the case with “Hound Dog”.
Despite a rough start and several bumps along the way, her passion and talent for the craft of music making made her name known in conjunction with blues tunes for decades to come. She found success in her album “Stronger Than Dirt”, released in 1969 under Mercury Records, becoming her most popular release yet!
Who Influenced Big Mama Thorton?
Fulfilling one of her lifelong dreams, she then released a gospel album, “Saved”, with a dozen classics redone in her unique blues and harmonica style like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, “Oh, Happy Day”, and other favorites of the gospel community. Inspired by the Dixie Hummingbirds and Mahalia Jackson, she joined them in fame and fortune that brought her onto the Billboard Top 200 record chart. Her song “Ball and Chain” was also included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.
Big Mama was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984 for her significant impact on the genre, but also recognized for her transgression of stereotypes for African-American women at the time and her bravery and success as a female artist in a male-dominated industry, another legacy she leaves with us today.
As the blues scene began to dwindle, so did Mama Thornton’s career, being surpassed by new genres and new artists remaking new versions of her own songs. Several tours were organized that she participated in, giving America and Europe one last taste of Big Mama before putting her vocal chords and harmonica to rest.
When Did Big Mama Thorton Die?
After a lifelong abuse of alcohol, Thornton fell to liver and heart disease in July of 1984, joining more legends taken too soon. Her sound lives on today, however, and her impact is shown in more ways than one in both the music industry and a society that recognizes talent no matter who it comes from.