Born in 1926 in Montgomery, Alabama, Willie Mae Thornton was one of seven children. The church played an important part in Willie Mae's early musical experience with her father being a minister and her mother singing in the choir. With the music of the church a strong point in her background, Thornton placed first in an amateur singing contest. It was at this contest that Sammy Green of Atlanta heard her sing and recruited her for his "Hot Harlem Review."
In 1948, Thornton moved to Houston, Texas where she sang and also wrote songs for performances in local clubs. While her stay in Texas was relatively brief, she managed to be influenced by the Texas music scene as well as contributing to the Texas Blues tradition herself.
During her stay in Houston in 1951, Don Robey, the chair of Peacock Records, signed her to his label. Also during the early 1950's, Willie Mae, along with Mel Walker and Little Esther, were the members of a show with Johnny Otis. This show became quite popular and was soon off to New York City to perform at the Apollo in 1952. As the opening act of the Johnny Otis show, Willie Mae sang "Have Mercy Baby," a Domino's hit, among others songs.
The success that resulted from this show landed Thornton the headliner position at the next night's show at the Apollo. During her Apollo performances, Willie Mae acquired the nickname "Big Mama". This nickname was quite appropriate given the singer's large stature and remained with her throughout her life.
A big break for Big Mama Thornton came in 1953 when Jerry Lieber and Mark Stoller composed the song "Hound Dog", which Willie Mae recorded with Peacock Records. At the time, however, the singer was still living in Houston and had to commute to New York for recording sessions. The "Hound Dog" single was accompanied by "They Call Me Big Mama" on the B-side. Nearly two million copies of this single were sold. Unfortunately, the only money Willie Mae ever saw from those sales was a check for $500.
By then she had become a central figure in the Rhythm and Blues (R&B) music scene. She sang in a number of nightclubs and was known as a tough character who sometimes dressed as a man. When she sang she sometimes incorporated animal noises into her work and often shouted out her lyrics with a menacing growl. Her songs were widely played on black radio stations. At that time, silly as it might seem today, no radio station run by the white establishment would play "black" music, so she remained relatively unknown to "white" audiences.
In 1956, Elvis Presley went on to record "Hound Dog" and make it a classic. Sadly, Thornton receives little credit for the "Hound Dog" single. In fact, in the early 1960's Thornton left Houston behind to relocate to the San Francisco Bay area. Here, during the 1960's and 1970's, she played at the Monterey Jazz Festival as well as touring with shows in America and Europe. At this time, Willie Mae had ceased to record as the music industry experienced a declining interest in the blues.
However, Big Mama did experience a resurgence in her popularity when Janis Joplin, a rock and roll artist from Texas took an interest in her in the late 1960's. Joplin is well known for her version of the earlier song "Ball and Chain" written by Thornton. In 1966 and 1967, Thornton recorded again producing "Big Mama Thornton in Europe" and "Big Mama Thornton with the Chicago Blues Band", the latter which included appearances by Sam (Lightnin') Hopkins, Muddy Waters and Otis Spawn.
For Pentagram Records and the She's Back for Backbeat label, Willie Mae recorded "Saved" in the early 1970's. Near the end of her life and career, she was seen in New York with Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Eddie Cleanhead Vinson and at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1983, an event that was recorded by Buddha Records.
On July 25, 1984, Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton died of an apparent heart attack while living in relative obscurity in a Los Angeles boarding house.
Page author: N.G.