How Big Mama Thornton Got Treated Real Small

Big Mama Thornton (Willie Mae Thornton, 1926-1984) was born this day. Hailing from Ariton, Alabama, Thornton grew up singing gospel music with her family at the church where her father preached. When just a teen, she ran off with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue in the early ’40s, billed as The New Bessie Smith.

She moved to Houston towards the end of the decade and her blues career began to take off. A record contract in 1951 brought her to New York and the Apollo Theater, where she got her stage name “Big Mama”. In 1952 she recorded her biggest hit “Hound Dog”, written and produced by Lieber and Stoller. Three years later the tune was covered by Elvis Presley, and the King’s smash hit on the pop charts swallowed up her respectable hit on the R & B charts. (Frankly, I like her version better. In addition to her snarling, sassy vocals, it benefits from an an interesting, sort of primitive drum rhythm played by Johnny Otis.)

In 1961, she wrote and recorded the song “Ball and Chain”, but it wasn’t released until 1968 — one year after Janis Joplin released her celebrated cover version. Thornton got no royalties for the song, but was booked to be Janis’s opening act. In the intervening years, Thornton had begun recording LP record albums (her earlier records had been singles) and playing folk festivals, all a windfall from the folk and blues revival. She was performing at festivals as late as 1980.

In 1984 she was found dead in her boarding house, due to alcohol related organ failure. She was only 57 years old. Nearly 30 years earlier she’d watched fellow Peacock Records artist Johnny Ace shoot himself backstage at a Houston theatre (he was playing with a gun). In a way, his death  was foreshadowing for her own: too young, too heedless of her own welfare, an artist too undervalued in her own time.

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