Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, arguably the greatest blues woman of the second half of the 20th century, was alternately tough and tender whether singing on stage and on records, or interacting with musical and business associates.
The daughter of Baptist minister George W. Thornton and wife Mattie, she was born in Ariton, Alabama, in 1926 and died in Los Angeles 57 years later. An older brother taught her to play the drums and harmonica.
Thornton toured the South during the 1940s as a singer, dancer and comedienne with Sammy Green’s Atlanta-based Hot Harlem Revue, a vaudeville troupe that perceptively billed her as “the new Bessie Smith.”
She was a kind-hearted woman by most accounts, yet so sensitive that she could become enraged by affronts, real or perceived. She was especially provoked when asked why she so often wore men’s clothing – though apparently heterosexual, she always refused to explain.
The hard-drinking vocalist was known to pull knives on men over gambling arguments, but there’s no evidence she ever cut one.
Thornton found fame when her 1953 recording of “Hound Dog” became a massive hit in African American communities throughout the United States – a blues penned by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller on which she was backed by the Johnny Otis band. It spent seven weeks at No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s R&B chart.
Elvis Presley’s pop hit treatment of the song three years later is mistakenly thought by many to have been a “rip off” of Thornton’s record. Whereas, Presley’s version differs lyrically and rhythmically from hers, having been borrowed from an arrangement by the Las Vegas lounge act Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys.
By the early ‘60s, her career in decline, Thornton was living in Oakland and appearing at such venues as the Beachcomber in Santa Cruz and the Club Savoy in North Richmond. Her show-stopping performance at the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival and a 1965 European tour with American Folk-Blues Festival along with albums for Arhoolie Records in Berkeley, helped return her to center stage.
Janis Joplin’s 1968 recording of “Ball and Chain,” a blues Thornton had written eight years earlier in San Francisco, further enhanced her reputation.
“I was her idol,” Thornton told this writer in 1982. “Everywhere I went, I looked up and seen Janis.”
Thornton remained feisty till the end. During a 1977 George Washington University concert backed by a pickup band with which she had not rehearsed, she called for “Hound Dog.”
“This ain’t no Elvis Presley song, son,” she yelled at the drummer as the band began. She then told him to give her the sticks, sat down behind the set and proceeded to demonstrate how to play the song “the Big Mama way.”