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Big Mama Thornton
Big Mama Thornton was born on this date in 1926. She was a Black blues singer, songwriter, drummer, and harmonica player.
Willie Mae Thornton was raised in a religious setting in Montgomery, AL. Her father was a minister and her mother sang in the choir. Thornton's musical aspirations led her to leave home in 1941 at age 14 and join the Georgia-based Hot Harlem Revue. Her seven-year tenure with Revue gave her significant singing and stage experience and enabled her to tour the South, settling in Houston in 1948.
Thornton was a self-taught drummer and harmonica player and regularly played both instruments on stage. She was singing on the Houston circuit when Peacock Records signed her in 1951. She opened the recording with "Partnership Blues" that year, backed by trumpeter Joe Scott's band. But it was her third Peacock date with Johnny Otis's band that proved the winner. She was the first to record the hit song "Hound Dog" in 1952. The song was #1 on the Billboard R&B charts for seven weeks
Elvis Presley's rocking 1956 cover was even bigger, which concealed Thornton's chief claim to immortality, although Thornton's menacing growl was something special. With Pete Lewis laying down some truly nasty guitar behind her, Big Mama shouted "Hound Dog," a song whose lyrics remain a bone of contention to this day. Though Thornton recorded some fine follow-ups such as "I Smell a Rat," "Stop Hoppin' on Me," "The Fish, and "Just Like a Dog," through 1957, she never again reached the hit parade.
The early 1960s 45 records for labels Irma, Bay-Tone, Kent, and Sotoplay did little, but a series of dates included her first vinyl rendition of "Ball and Chain" in 1968 and two albums for Mercury in 1969-70 put her back in motion. Along with her imposing vocals, Thornton began to emphasize her harmonica skills during the 1960s. Thornton was a tough woman. She dressed like a man and took no crap from anyone, even as the pounds fell off her once large frame during the last years of her life.
Medical personnel found her lifeless body in a rooming house; Big Mama Thornton died July 25, 1984, in Los Angeles, California.
Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians
Edited by Lawrence Cohn
Copyright 1993 Abbeville Publishing Group, New York