Thornton performs at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1980 at New York's Avery Fisher Hall in a program devoted to the women who sing the blues. (Photo: Carlos Rene Perez/AP/Shutterstock)

Black History Month Profiles: Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton, Blues Musician

During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn about more important figures.

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was a blues singer and songwriter who also played the drums and harmonica. She was a formative figure in the genre of rhythm and blues. (Photo permission under Fair Use)

Born: Dec. 11, 1926 Montgomery or Ariton, Ala.
Died: July 25, 1984 Los Angeles, Calif.
Known best for: Her 1952 recording of “Hound Dog,” a song Elvis Presley later covered, and her original song, “Ball and Chain,” which Janis Joplin performed. Her compositions include more than 20 blues songs and she was posthumously inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.

Willie Mae Thornton was born in 1926 to minister Thomas H. Thornton and singer Edna M. Richardson Thornton. Some historical sources cite the rural outskirts of Montgomery, Ala. as Thornton’s birthplace, while others say she was born in an unincorporated community called Ariton in Dale County, Ala.

She grew up in Lauderdale County and had at least four siblings. Thornton got involved in music through singing in her father’s congregation, where her mother was also a member of the church choir. She also learned drums and harmonica. One of Thornton’s brothers was also a musician, known as “Harp” Thornton, because of his outstanding harmonica skills.

Thornton was 14 when her mother died, and she took a job cleaning at a local saloon. One night the bar’s regular singer got too drunk and Thornton volunteered to fill in for her. Soon, she was filling in for the singer regularly.

Thornton eventually caught the attention of Atlanta music promoter, Sammy Green. When Green’s show, the “Hot Harlem Revue,” played at the Pekin Theatre in Montgomery, the theater held an amateur singing audition Thornton won first prize in.

Some accounts state Green became aware of Thornton’s talent because he heard her performance. Blues singer Mary Smith McLain performed with the “Revue,” and its likely she encouraged Thornton to audition in the first place. Other accounts say the Green and Thornton became acquainted because she helped some of Green’s artists carry a piano up the stairs of a club.

As a teenager Thornton ended up performing and traveling with the “Revue” for a few years. She was billed as “the new Bessie Smith.” Thornton cited Smith, a famous blues singer whose career peaked in the 1920s and ’30s, as one of her largest influences, along with other blues greats like Ma Rainey, Junior Parker and Memphis Minnie.

In 1948, she left the Revue to settle in Houston. There, she worked with bandleader Johnny Otis and entrepreneur Don Robey as her producers. Robey signed Thornton to a contract with the independent Peacock Records Label, which later became known as Duke-Peacock. The label was influential in the music world because of the gritty rhythm and blues and gospel-style music it put out.

Thornton was an open lesbian which created some tension between her and Robey. However, he had her perform regularly in his Houston club, The Bronze Peacock.

Thornton also traveled across the country to perform throughout what was known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a string of bars and nightclubs considered safe for Black artists to perform in.

In 1952, Thornton performed in the Otis Show in New York City. She began as an opener for other rhythm and blues artists but soon became the headliner. Here is where Thornton became known as “Big Mama” because of her size and gutsy, robust singing voice.

That same year Thornton attended a recording session in Los Angeles where songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller presented her with a 12-bar blues song called “Hound Dog,” which would be on the A-side of a record with her own song, “They Call Me Big Mama,” on the B-side.

“Hound Dog” was released in 1953 and Thornton’s exuberant performance full of sexual innuendos topped R&B charts. It sold two million copies, but Thornton only received $500. Three years later, Elvis Presley performed the same song in a watered-down style meant to appeal to mainstream white audiences. He earned fame and considerable profit.

Thornton was not the only Black musician cheated out of royalties at the time, and many still use this injustice as an argument for reparations to Black Americans.

As white rock and roll music — heavily influenced by Black rhythm and blues — became popular, the mainstream appeal of rhythm and blues died out and Thornton’s career stalled. However, a blues revival occurred in the ’60s as white artists like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones became interested in the genre. Thornton still struggled for support, but she was invited to the Monterey Jazz Festival and toured Europe with the American Folk Blues festival, which was rare for a woman at the time.

Thornton continued recording throughout the late 1960s. “Ball and Chain,” a heavy, powerful 1968 song Thornton wrote and performed, caught the attention of rock singer Janis Joplin. Joplin is now best known for her rendition of the song, but she was a self-proclaimed fan of Thornton and credited her. Thornton reportedly approved of Joplin’s rendition, saying, “That girl feels like I do” when she heard it. In 1968, Thornton performed at the Sky River Rock Festival alongside popular acts like the Grateful Dead and Santana.

Thornton worked until her death in 1984. Even as her health deteriorated, Thornton played the 1979 San Francisco Blues Festival and 1983 Newport Jazz Festival. After her death, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.

Held back by the financial exploitation of her talent and eclipsed by the success of white artists like Presley, Thornton died in poverty despite her skill and influence. She left her legacy on American music and her gritty style shaped and inspired some of America’s best-known musicians — influential creatives Thornton should be considered one of.

Sources: Library of Congress, Encyclopedia of Alabama

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