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Big Mama Thornton

Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton only notched one national hit in her lifetime, but it was a true monster. "Hound Dog" held down the top slot on Billboard's R&B charts for seven long weeks in 1953. Alas, Elvis Presley's rocking 1956 cover was even bigger, effectively obscuring Thornton's chief claim to immortality.

That's a damned shame, because Thornton's menacing growl was indeed something special. The hefty belter first opened her pipes in church but soon embraced the blues. She toured with Sammy Green's Hot Harlem Revue during the 1940s. Thornton was ensconced on the Houston circuit when Peacock Records boss Don Robey signed her in 1951. She debuted on Peacock with "Partnership Blues" that year, backed by trumpeter Joe Scott's band.

But it was her third Peacock date with Johnny Otis' band that proved the winner. With Pete Lewis laying down some truly nasty guitar behind her, Big Mama shouted "Hound Dog," a tune whose authorship remains a bone of contention to this day (both Otis and the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller claim responsibility), and soon hit the road a star.

But it was an isolated incident. Though Thornton cut some fine Peacock follow-ups -- "I Smell a Rat," "Stop Hoppin' on Me," "The Fish," "Just like a Dog" -- through 1957, she never again reached the hit parade. Even Elvis was apparently unaware of her; he was handed "Hound Dog" by Freddie Bell, a Vegas lounge rocker. Early-'60s 45s for Irma, Bay-Tone, Kent, and Sotoplay did little to revive her sagging fortunes, but a series of dates for Arhoolie that included her first vinyl rendition of "Ball and Chain" in 1968 and two albums for Mercury in 1969-1970 put her back in circulation (Janis Joplin's overwrought but well-intentioned cover of "Ball and Chain" didn't hurt either). Along with her imposing vocals, Thornton began to emphasize her harmonica skills during the 1960s.

Thornton was a tough cookie. She dressed like a man and took no guff from anyone, even as the pounds fell off her once-ample frame and she became downright scrawny during the last years of her life. Medical personnel found her lifeless body in an L.A. rooming house in 1984. ~ Bill Dahl, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography

Comments

oh how i love her voice, one of our Houston all-time blues greats! what a woman.
One of the unsung greats.
love you big mama you will be missed but your music will live on in all of us God bless you
Love Big Mama!
Love the blues
awesome
perfection, wow!
Buddy Guy in the prime of youth playing some ferocious guitar on School Boy. Her voice and this band was just too much.
teedub95464
Saw Big Mama a month or so before she died at the Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley. Freaked me out in a good way. She looked like my grandfather. Had a drunk thrown out of the venue. Even though she was on a walker, she had us mesmerized.
The female voice is the most powerful force. The sirens still sing and seduce
You growl Mama!
dlc
jenthornton7 2
Elvis couldn't EVENNN compare to MAMA!!! Or any of the super blues artists Hope she's getting her RESPECT now. Lv u from another Thornton "mama"!!!
richardocunn i n g h a m 6 0
O so powerful.
Go Big Mama, go! Love her Hound Dog. (Screw you Elvis.)
RIGHT ON! BIG MAMA SHE'S THE BEST OF THEM ALL
A true classic!
mikecrachiol o
john lee hooker and others have a harmonica jam with big mama
can't get more down !
awesome. and hi, lydia!!
sister can play the Harp.
I can understand why janis joplin respected this woman. Big mama can really belt them blues out. She is awesome.
fancifr
Incredible vocal, what a shame she didn't receive the recognition she deserved!
So beautiful... s o said an end.
johnnie_48
mmm,mmm,mmm so soulful!
twodogsap
hound dog big mama had the great hit #1 always!
awsome!. reminds me of mahila....
Truly a pioneer soul diva blueswomen.
what about ball n chain? what a great song! i thought for sure that'd be on her top song list... janis joplin covered it.. lovely
One of the great ladies of blues.
Had not heard her B 4. Woohoo!
OOOOOHHHHHHH H H H H W E E E E E E E E E E E ! ! ! ! ! ! !
There's no question, Big Mama's "Hound Dog" whupped Elvis's version up one side and down the other. It's too bad she didn't get the recognition she so well deserved, because she could turn the mike red hot and melt the master disc every time she walked into the studio, and that's a rare gift.
Willie Mae all I can say is my...my...my . . . m y . . . w h a t a woman what a voice!!!
can't get enough of her...wish she would sing me to sleep every night with her sultry blues and wake me up every morning with her bellowing energy.
First time hearing her...its like hearing my mother cry.
sleon13
The first time I ever heard of Big Mama was when I saw her at Winterland in S.F. in the late 60's, She brought the house to their feet. Simply fantastic!
abgalbreath
This is the first time that I have heard of Big Momma Thornton. She has a powerful singing voice. Please include more of her songs for my listening pleasure.
Two of my life's highlights:
1. owning 45 record of Big Mama's Hound Dog
2. seeing Big Mama in person up close in Santa outfit in SF jazz club - probably in the late '50s or early '60s.
deathrockliv e s
love willie mae! wish there were more artists like her today!

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