Willie Mae Thornton
Thornton, Big Mama
Big Mama Thornton
Blues singer, instrumentalist
Earning the nickname “Big Mama” because of her broad girth, Willie Mae Thornton continued the tradition of the great female blues singers who made their mark a few decades before their heyday. She was a popular performer on the rhythm-and-blues circuit from the 1950s until her death in 1984 and is best-known for “Ball and Chain,” a composition of her own that was also a hit for Janis Joplin. “Her booming voice, sometimes 200-pound frame, and exuberant stage manner had audiences stomping their feet and shouting encouragement in R&B theaters from coast to coast from the early 1950s on,” remarked Irwin Stambler in the Encyclopedia of Pop Rock& Soul.
Robert Santelli wrote in the Big Book of Blues that Thornton “was a direct descendant of such classic blues singers as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and especially Memphis Minnie, the ‘30s blues woman whose style Thornton’s most strongly resembled.” Concurring with this opinion in his review of Thornton’s Ball ‘N’ Chain album in the Grove Press Guide to the Blues on CD, Frank-John Hadley noted, “Willie Mae Thornton, full throated and aggressive, was a gale wind of passion in the fashion of her foremothers Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.” Thornton never received formal training as a singer or musician. “No one taught her how to sing or how to play the harmonica and drums,” wrote Chris Strachwitz in the liner notes for Big Mama Thornton: Ball N’ Chain. “Willie Mae just watched others and tried things.”
One of seven children of a minister in Alabama, Thornton sang in church choirs along with her mother as a child. She was forced to begin working at age 14 when her mother died, and got her first chance to sing in public at a saloon where she scrubbed floors after the regular singer quit her job one night. After joining Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Review of Atlanta, Georgia, in 1941, she hit the road on the blues circuit throughout the South. While on tour she was treated to live performances by blues legends such as Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Big Maceo.
After settling in Houston in 1948, Thornton met Junior Parker, Lightning Hopkins, Lowell Fulson, and Gate-mouth Brown, all of whom influenced her style. Her first recording was released in Houston under the name Harlem Stars. Next she signed a contract with the Peacock label and headed to Los Angeles to appear with bandleader Johnny Otis, who was well known on the pop music scene at the time. His tour included famous performers such as Little Esther and Mel Walker
For the Record…
Toured with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Review, 1941; met Junior Parker, Lightning Hopkins, Lowell Fulson, and Gate mouth Brown, 1948; made first recording under name Harlem Stars, around 1950; signed with Peacock label, 1951; toured and recorded with Johnny Otis band, early 1950s; recorded “Hound Dog,” 1953; appeared in many R&B shows, 1950s; toured with Junior Parker and Johnny Ace, 1953-54; toured with Gatemouth Brown, 1956; wrote and recorded “Ball and Chain,” 1961; recorded with Kent and Mercury labels, 1960s; appeared at Monterey Jazz Festival, 1964, 1966; appeared on “Dick Cavett” television show, 1971; performed at two state prisons, 1975; performed with American Folk Blues Festival in Europe, 1965; established long-term association with Arhoolie label, 1965; appeared at Kool Newport Jazz Festival, 1980.
Awards : Inducted into Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame, 1984.
With the Otis band on the Peacock label, Thornton recorded some 30 songs in the early 1950s that were “remarkable for the vocal presence and total cohesiveness,” according to Gérard Herzhaft in the Encyclopedia of Blues.
Thornton’s big break came in 1953 when, according to Bob Shannon and John Javna in Behind the Hits, Johnny Otis asked composers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller to write a song especially for Thornton. The song was “Hound Dog,” and it climbed to number one on the R&B charts, making Thornton a national star. “They [Lieber and Stoller] were just a couple of kids then and they had this song written on a paper bag,” Thornton told a columnist in New York City, claimed Stambler. “So I started to sing the words and join in some of my own. All that talkin’ and hollerin’—that’s my own. “Three years later, the song became a monster hit for Elvis Presley, with an arrangement similar to the original. Thornton always felt that she was cheated out of the success she deserved from “Hound Dog.” The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music noted that some people thought Thornton rather than Lieber and Stoller should have received credit for writing it. “I never got what I should have,” she was quoted as saying by Stambler. “I got one check for $500 and I never seen another.”
After “Hound Dog,” Thornton kept busy at R&B showcases across the country. She traveled the circuit with friends Junior Parker and Johnny Ace in 1953 and 1954, then with Gatemouth Brown in 1956 before returning to California and taking up residence in Los Angeles the next year. As blues music declined in popularity in the late 1950s, Thornton was no longer in such demand, and she lost her recording contract in 1957. However, she continued to perform, playing drums and harmonica with small bands at local blues clubs in San Francisco. Thornton regained some of her lost limelight in 1961 with “Ball and Chain,” which became a modest hit for her. Her star status continued to rise during the 1960s as white audiences began embracing blues music.
After appearing at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1964, Thornton toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. Her increasing popularity led to a new recording contract in 1965 with the Arhoolie label, an association that lasted into the 1980s. Her first Arhoolie album was recorded in Europe and featured a noteworthy lineup of James Cotton on harmonica, Otis Spann on piano, and Muddy Waters on guitar. Her visibility increased as she performed at Monterey again in 1966 and at various other jazz and blues festivals in the 1960s and 1970s. Her live appearances at two penitentiaries were also recorded In the 1970s.
Years of heavy drinking and hard-living had taken their toll on Thornton by the 1980s. But she continued to perform and remained popular in West Coast clubs up until the end of her life. “Emaciated, unable to remain standing, ‘Big Mama’ was still impressive with her swing during her last performances on stage,” contended Herzhaft. She died of a heart attack in 1984 while living in a Los Angeles boarding house.
“Ball and Chain.”
“Sweet Little Angel.
“I’m Feeling Alright.”
“Swing it On Home.”
Big Mama Thornton in Europe, Arhoolie, 1965.
Big Mama Thornton with the Chicago Blues Band, Arhoolie, 1967.
Big Mama Thornton: Bali N’ Chain, Arhoolie, 1968.
Sassy Mama, Vanguard, 1992.
Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989, p. 1163.
Hadley, Frank-John, The Grove Press Guide to the Blues on CD, Grove Press, 1993, p. 216.
Herzhaft, Gerard, Encyclopedia of the Blues, University of Arkansas Press, 1992, pp. 345-347.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume 5, Guinness Publishing, 1992, pp. 4155-4156.
Santelli, Robert, The Big Book of Blues, Penguin, 1993, pp.404-405.
Shannon, Bob and John Javna, Behind the Hits, Warner Books, 1986, p. 84.
Sonnier, Austin, Jr., A Guide to the Blues, Greenwood Press, 1994, p.205.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin’s Press, 1974, pp. 684-685.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes to Big Mama Thornton: Ball N’ Chain, Arhoolie.
Thornton, Big Mama 1926–1984
Big Mama Thornton 1926–1984
Blues singer, songwriter, musician
Willie Mae Thornton, known popularly as “Big Mama” because of her broad girth, was not only a successful singer/songwriter in her own time, but also influenced later performers such as Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin. She herself was influenced by the famous blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s like Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Ma Rainey. She was a popular performer famous for exuberant shows. “Her booming voice, sometimes 200-pound frame, and exuberant stage manner had audiences stomping their feet and shouting encouragement in R&B theaters from coast to coast from the early 1950s on,” according to the Encyclopedia of Pop Rock & Soul. She received no formal training, either for voice, or for the instruments she played, like the harmonica and the drums. She was a true musician and was able to watch others play and then try things out until she got them right.
Born December 11, 1926 in the country outside Montgomery, Alabama, Thornton was one of seven children of a minister. She began her music career singing alongside her mother in her father’s church choir and also playing harmonica, an instrument she picked up at a very early age, in small shows around the countryside. When, in 1940, her mother died Thornton was forced to go out and work. Only 14 years old, she took a job scrubbing floors at a local saloon and it was there that she had her first opportunity to sing in public when the regular singer suddenly quit her job one night leaving the place with no entertainment. After her first successful attempt at singing in public, Thornton entered a small talent show in which she won first prize, and it was there that she came to the attention of Sammy Green. Green asked her to join his Hot Harlem Review and Thornton was soon after seen touring with the vaudeville troupe, dancing and singing across the South.
In 1948 she stopped touring and settled in Houston, Texas having signed a five-year contract with Don Robey to be his nightclub singer, singing with Louis Jordan’s band. There she met such famous musicians as Junior Parker, Lightning Hopkins, Lowell Fulson, and Gatemouth Brown. They all helped influence her building style, and it was while living in Houston that Thornton released her first recording under the name Harlem Stars. It was at this time too that Thornton learned how to play the drums. According the Rolling Stone, Thornton said, “I got tired of everybody messin’ up, so I just started bangin’.” Brought more firmly into
Career: Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Review, 1941; first recording as Harlem Stars, 1950; Johnny Otis band, early 1950s; recorded “Hound Dog,” 1953; toured with Junior Parker and Johnny Ace, 1953-54; toured with Gatehouse Brown, 1956; wrote and recorded “Ball and Chain,” 1961; Monterey Jazz Festival, 1964 & 1966; “From Spirituals to Swing,” Carnegie Hall, 1967; Black, White, and Blue, PBS, 1967; Della, New York, 1969; Rock I, Toronto, 1970; The Dick Cavett Show, 1971; Midnight Special, 1974; performed at two state penitentiaries, 1975; American Folk Blues Festival in Europe, 1965; signed with Arhoolie label, 1965; Kool Newport Jazz Festival, 1980; “Blues Is a Woman,” Avery Fisher Hall, 1980.
Awards: San Francisco Blues Festival Award, 1979; Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame, inducted, 1984.
the blues world by this release, she was signed onto the Peacock label, which had her heading to Los Angles to perform with Johnny Otis, the famous pop music bandleader.
She toured with Johnny Otis’s Rhythm and Blues Caravan throughout the early 1950s. In 1952 they went to New York to perform at the Apollo, it was while there that Big Mama got her nickname, given to her after the first performance because she was six feet tall, was rather large, and had an immense, earthy voice. The name stuck. At the same time she was touring she recorded around thirty songs of her own.
In 1953 she recorded “Hound Dog,” the song later made famous by Elvis Presley. Johnny Otis, asked Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller to write a song specifically for Thornton and that song was “Hound Dog.” It quickly went up the R&B charts to number one and was the song that made Thornton a big star. Notable Black American Women quoted Ian Whitcomb describing Thornton singing the song, “When Big Mama sings ‘Hound Dog’ she’s slow and easy and also menacing, smiling like a saber-tooth tiger, her black diamond eyes glinting fiercely. Then, with the band in full roar, she leaves her chair to ambulate off in a swaying promenade that has a certain military regality, and the whole house cheers like royal subjects.”
Three years later Elvis Presley recorded the song and it became an enormous hit for him. Thornton, in the meantime, always thought she’d never received the credit she should have for the song. Although written by Lieber and Stoller, it was her additions to the song that made it the hit it is today but she received only one check for $500 for the song and never saw another penny that the popular song pulled in. Rolling Stone quoted her as having said, “Didn’t get no money from them at all. Everybody livin’ in a house but me. I’m just livin.”
After the release of “Hound Dog” in 1952, Thornton went on tour with some of her old friends, first with Junior Parker and Johnny Ace from 1953 to 1954, and then with Gatemouth Brown in 1956. After her tours finished she moved to Los Angeles and started playing harmonica and drums in some of the local clubs as the popularity of blues began to decline. In 1961 Thornton was brought into the limelight again with her release of the song “Ball and Chain.”
Although she struggled a bit professionally during her life, Thornton was well received at such festivals as the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Newport Folk Festival, and the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. She also toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival in 1964. When she returned she signed a contract with the Arhoolie label in 1965, with whom she stayed until the 1980s. In 1979 she took part in the San Francisco Blues Festival, despite poor health, and gave there what critics called the performance of a lifetime. To recognize her contributions to the blues music scene, Thornton was awarded the San Francisco Blues Festival Award. Thornton appeared on many television shows throughout her life, and in 1980 she was seen onstage at the Newport Jazz Festival in a program “Blues Is a Woman” alongside other veteran female singers.
Thornton was known to be a heavy drinker and her notorious hard living finally took its toll in the 1970s and the 1980s, but Thornton performed in her lively fashion almost to the end, always dressed in nun’s clothes. Her robust frame was gone as well as she lost most of her weight in later years. Even after a serious car accident in 1981 for which she required major surgery, she performed at a cabaret in Pasadena, California though she was unable to walk or stand during the performance. She died on July 25, 1984 in a boarding house in Los Angeles, California of a heart attack and complications from cirrhosis of the liver.
After a lifetime of performing, Thornton was inducted into the Blue’s Foundations Hall of Fame in 1984. In the year 2000 Thornton was remembered in a dance show called “Sweet Willie Mae.” Andrea E. Woods, who was the choreographer of the show, wanted to celebrate the freedom she found in Thornton’s music. “What makes Willie Mae Thornton’s music so intense and personal,” Woods told the Winston-Salem Journal, “is that she owns the music.” Thornton was also part of an exhibit at the Woman’s Museum in Dallas, her recording of “Hound Dog” playing continuously in a room dedicated to female musicians. Also, the Fund for Women Artists website has a page dedicated to The Big Mama Thornton Project, a collaboration for a play based on Thornton’s life. These are high honors for a woman who died penniless and alone, and ones that will most likely be repeated as more and more people discover a woman who helped make Blues and R&B the popular forms of music they are today.
Big Mama Thornton in Europe, Arhoolie, 1965.
Big Mama Thornton with the Chicago Blues Band, Arhoolie, 1967.
Big Mama Thornton: Ball N’ Chain, Arhoolie, 1968.
Big Mama Thornton: Saved, Pentagram Records, 1970(?).
She’s Back, Backbeat Label, 1970(?).
The Complete Vanguard Recordings, Vanguard, 1975.
Sassy Mama, Vanguard, 1975.
Jail, Vanguard, 1975.
Big Mama Swings, Vanguard, 1975.
Quit Snoopin’ ’round My Door, Ace Records, 1984(?).
Almanac of Famous People, 6th edition, Gale Research, 1998.
Contemporary Musicians, Volume 18, Gale Research, 1997.
Notable Black American Women, Book 2, Gale Research, 1996.
Business Wire, November 4, 1998.
Ebony, July 2001.
Entertainment Weekly, February 19, 1993, p. 64.
The Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), May 13, 2001, p. T&B1.
The Observer (London, England), June 8, 1997, p. 13.
Rolling Stone, September 13, 1984, p. 43.
Winston-Salem Journal (Winston-Salem, NC), November 12, 2000, p. El.
Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2000.
—Catherine Victoria Donaldson