Big Mama Thornton (December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984)
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was born in Alabama. Different sources contend that it was either Ariton or Montgomery. Nonetheless, her mother died young and “Mama” left school early to help out her family of six siblings and father. She left home in 1940 to pursue music. In 1948, she moved to Houston and her career really began to take off. Her first recording deal was landed in 1951 with Peacock Records. The very next year she performed at the Apollo Theater. In fact, the manager of the Apollo Theater, Frank Schiffman was responsible for giving Thornton her nickname “Big Mama.” Her strong voice, size and big personality make her a standout performer her whole life. Thornton did not need to use a microphone, her voice was loud and strong enough on its own. Her own personal experiences influenced her work and her song writing, as that is what her mentors did. Plus, Thornton never once had any kind of formal musical training. Everything learned was self-taught. In turn, Thornton was a lone African-American female voice that stood out and commanded its own attention in a sea of white male domination.
Thornton’s biggest hit was 1952’s Leiber and Stoller’s Hound Dog. It spent seven weeks atop Billboard’s R&B chart. Three years later, Elvis Presley covered the song and his rendition became the more popular recording of the song. History would repeat itself. Ball’n’Chain made a bigger impact when Janis Joplin’s re-recorded it in 1967. Though both Presley and Joplin
had much respect for Thornton and tried to leave in vocal stylings and delivery so they still sounded like something Thornton could have done. Another tough part for Thornton regarding Ball’n’Chain was that Peacock didn’t immediately release her version of the song she originally recorded in 1960. They retained the rights though. Joplin’s version came out in 1967 and finally Thornton’s was released in 1968. Therefore, Thornton missed out publishing royalties. As the blues era of music died out, so did Mama’s career.
The 1970s ushered in a spate of health problems due to years of heavy drinking. At age 57, in 1984, Mama was found dead by Los Angeles medical personnel in a boarding house. She had died of heart and liver disorders due to her alcohol abuse. She had also dropped 255 pounds and only weighed a frightening 95 pounds at the time of her death due to her health problems. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame that very same year. There was never any ill will between Joplin or Thornton over the Ball’n’Chain debacle. Both singers praised the other. Critics argue that Thornton didn’t receive the recognition of the music industry that she did due to the racial segregation happening in the United States at the time. Another reason why Thornton loved Europe and was always happy to catch a plane to perform there. In 2004, a non profit named for Thornton, the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, was founded to offer music education for girls from 8 to 18. Big Mama Thornton was truly a talent ahead of her time.