Big Mama Thornton - Honoring Black History

Willie Mae Thornton (1926-1984), best known as Big Mama Thornton, was a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who provided original recordings of some of popular music’s biggest all-time hits. Her musical education began in a Baptist church near Montgomery, Alabama where her mother was a singer and her father a minister. She grew up listening to Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, who paved a way for Thornton in the music industry. In 1940, she left home and joined Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue, being billed as the “New Bessie Smith.” Near the end of that decade Thornton’s career took off after moving to Houston. By 1951, she had a record deal with Peacock Records and was performing at the Apollo. It was through that record company that she met Johnny Otis, the drummer who accompanied her on a recording of “Hound Dog” in 1953. The song’s writers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, were present for the recording and guided Thornton’s vocals: “We wanted her to growl it.” Big Mama’s record went on to sell half a million copies and reach #1 on the R&B charts, a mere 3 years before Elvis Presley recorded his version. Thornton later recorded her own version of “Ball and Chain” that was later re-created by Janis Joplin, although her version was not released by the record company. Despite her critical acclaim and rich, raw vocals, her recordings of Presley and Joplin’s hits yielded her little money or notoriety. However, Big Mama’s telling of “Hound Dog” is still known to some Women of Color as an “anthem of Black female power,” to this day.