If Big Mama’s body was big, her talent was cosmic. Big Mama Thornton is one of the most bad-ass women in blues. A self-taught drummer. Accomplished harmonica player. Killer songwriter. She had one of the biggest voices in the business. You probably know her song “Ball n’ Chain.” If you think Janis Joplin could sing, take a listen to Big Mama.
Big Mama Thornton originated another song you’ll recognize. It was her first hit, recorded in ‘52. It’s a track that got really famous a few years later when an innocent public turned on their TV’s to see a young man thrusting his hips to the rhythm.
Elvis Presley’s version may be the bigger hit, but there’s nothin’ like the original. Here’s Big Mama Thornton and the Johnny Otis band with “Hound Dog.”
Big Mama Thornton
(December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984)
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was born in Ariton, Alabama on December 11, 1926. She was a singer, songwriter, harmonica player, and self-taught drummer. Her career began in the Baptist church where her father was a minister and her mother a frequent choir member. She moved to Houston, Texas and signed a contract with Peacock records in 1951. In 1952, she began working with Johnny Otis. It was then she had her first hit. Big Mama recorded the Lieber and Stoller song “Hound Dog,” produced by Otis, also in ’52. The track reached number one on the R&B charts, though Big Mama saw little of the profits, and Elvis would come along two years later to steal her thunder. Her career stretched the fifties, but began to fade in the early sixties, so she joined on the American Folk Blues Festival in ’65. In ’66 she recorded and toured with Muddy Waters Blues Band. That tour, and the release of her song “Ball and Chain” by Janis Joplin on the album Cheap Thrills, began to renew public interest in Big Mama.
Big Mama continued to tour the blues festival circuit until her death. By 1970, years of hard drinking had caught up to her. A serious car accident in ’73 nearly killed her, but she was able to pick herself up and haul back to the stage. She began to lose the weight that made her name, and started growing more and more frail. Big Mama died of a heart attack in 1984 at age 57.