Big Mama Thornton was a vibrant rhythm & blues shouter whose trademark growl and equally powerful clean shout were a major influence on generations of R&B and rock artists to come. While she never crossed over to the pop charts, two of her signature songs would become well known to rock fans: She was the first to record “Hound Dog,” written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, four years before Elvis Presley had a hit with the tune, and she wrote “Ball & Chain,” which Janis Joplin performed with gusto on Big Brother & the Holding Company’s epochal 1968 album Cheap Thrills. While Thornton enjoyed her greatest success in the ’50s, she continued to record well into the ’70s and performed into the ’80s, with her impassioned version of the blues — gritty but swinging, perfect for a rowdy Saturday night — intact. Her superb early singles are collected on the 1992 set Hound Dog: The Peacock Recordings, and 1966′s In Europe is drawn from recordings of the American Folk Blues Festival tour of 1965, with Buddy Guy backing her on guitar on several cuts.
Big Mama Thornton was born Willie Mae Thornton on December 11, 1926, in Ariton, Alabama, one of seven children born to a minister and his wife, a singer. She first took up singing in her father’s church, and learned the ropes of secular music by listening to the work of Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith. She also learned to play the harmonica, picking up the instrument when she was eight. When Thornton was 14 years old, her mother died, and she took on odd jobs to help support the family. It wasn’t long before she ran away from home, and with the help of blues vocalist Diamond Teeth Mary McClain, she joined a traveling show, Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue, where she earned the nickname “the New Bessie Smith.” In 1948, she relocated to Houston, Texas, a city with a thriving blues and jazz scene, and her vocal style was a good match for the upbeat R&B and jump blues sounds that were becoming a staple at Black nightspots, both on-stage and on the jukeboxes. Don Robey signed her to his Peacock Records label in 1951, and the following year, she released her debut single. Thornton launched her recording career with a song called “Hound Dog,” written by a pair of budding songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who also helped produce the session. (R&B legend Johnny Otis, who had mentored Thornton, played drums on the track.) Leiber and Stoller told her they wanted her to growl as she sang, and her rough and ready performance made the song a hit, selling over 500,000 copies and reaching top of the Rhythm & Blues charts.
Thornton continued to record for Peacock and toured frequently, including appearing as part of a package tour of artists from Robey’s labels that saw her sharing bills with Bobby "Blue" Bland, Junior Parker, and Johnny Ace. She recorded a duet with Ace, “Yes Baby,” and performed at the infamous Christmas Day show in 1954 where Ace died backstage in a game of Russian Roulette. While Thornton was a star on the R&B and blues circuit, her sound and her demeanor were too brash for the pop charts, and in 1956, Elvis Presley recorded a version of “Hound Dog” that featured a different arrangement and different lyrics. Presley’s cover was a massive hit, and Thornton’s recording was soon regarded as a footnote. (Though some accused Presley of stealing the song from Thornton, she had no writing credits on the tune, and his version was based on a recording by Freddie Bell & the Bellboys, which featured the revised lyrics and arrangement.) Sales of Thornton’s record dwindled with time, and ended her association with Peacock in 1957. As audiences in Texas became more fickle, she moved to California, settling in the San Francisco Bay area, where she played frequent club dates and toured throughout the state.
Thornton cut occasional one-off singles for a handful of R&B labels, but she didn’t release an album until 1966, when archivist Chris Strachwitz brought out a pair of LPs on his Arhoolie label. Big Mama Thornton & the Chicago Blues Band was cut in a single day with Muddy Waters and his road band backing her, while In Europe was drawn from live recordings of her appearances with the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival tour, with Buddy Guy, Walter "Shaky" Horton, and Eddie Boyd as part of her backing band. In 1968, Arhoolie issued the album Ball and Chain, which featured two cuts by Thornton (“Ball and Chain” and “Wade in the Water”) along with material from Lightnin' Hopkins and Larry Williams. “Ball and Chain” had been in legal limbo for several years — she had originally recorded it for a small label called Bay-Tone Records, which opted not to release it but still owned the publishing rights, which prevented it from appearing until she re-recorded it for Arhoolie. By that time, Janis Joplin, a Big Mama Thornton fan who cited her as an inspiration, was singing the song with the band Big Brother & the Holding Company, and it was included on their 1968 album Cheap Thrills. That LP was a major hit, and while Thornton didn’t receive much money as a result of Cheap Thrills’ success, it helped her attract a new audience among rock fans who were exploring the work of seminal blues artists.
Thornton signed her first major-label deal in 1969 when she teamed with Mercury Records to record the LP Stronger Than Dirt. It was her first effort to crack the Top 200 album charts (peaking at number 198), and a second album for Mercury, The Way It Is, arrived before the year was out. It was her last release for Mercury, but she soon struck a deal with the Warner Bros.-distributed Pentagram label to record her first collection of gospel songs, 1971′s Saved. In 1972, Thornton headed for Europe, where she once again took part in the annual American Folk Blues Festival tour. She next recorded for Vanguard Records, cutting a fresh studio album, 1975′s Sassy Mama!, and a live album, Jail, recorded during shows at prisons in Monroe, Washington and Eugene, Oregon. (Selections from the two Vanguard LPs and a number of unreleased tracks were issued in 1978 as Mama’s Pride.) Throughout this period, she performed regularly at blues festivals and nightclubs, even as her health began to fail as a result of long-term alcoholism — in her heyday she weighed as much as 350 pounds, but as she grew frail her weight dropped to 98 pounds.
In 1980, Thornton appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival, where the bill also featured B.B. King and Muddy Waters; an album featuring selections from all three artists, Live at Newport, first appeared in 1982 and has been reissued several times since. It would be the last recording Thornton released in her lifetime. She died on July 25, 1984 at a rooming house in Los Angeles at the age of 57. A number of archival live albums appeared after she passed, including 1994′s The Rising Sun Collection (recorded at a show in Montreal, Quebec, Canada — it was also released as Sassy Mama), 2001′s Mighty Crazy (selections from separate sets by Thornton and Lightnin' Hopkins at a 1978 festival), and Live and Together (from a 1979 Texas concert where she was joined by zydeco king Clifton Chenier). ~ Mark Deming