Pat Blythe …and The Blues Continue – Big Mama Thornton
Who pops into your mind when you hear the song title “Hound Dog”? How about “Ball and Chain”? Big Mama Thornton? Probably not. However, “Hound Dog” was her biggest hit, selling more than two million copies when it was first released in 1953. “Hound Dog”reached number one on the R&B charts and made Thornton a star. However, her total compensation was the paltry sum of $500. Elvis Presley recorded it three years later and with it (for Presley) came fame and great financial reward. After meeting Big Mama, Janis Joplin recorded “Ball and Chain” with her band Big Brother and Holding Company, but it was Joplin’s famous performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 that made this song a hit (note Cass Elliot’s face in the crowd) with “bluesaphobes” everywhere, reintroducing the genre to a brand new audience and rekindling interest in Big Mama herself.
Willie Mae Thornton arrived in this world December 11, 1926, in Ariton, Alabama, a small town located on the outskirts of Montgomery. One of seven siblings, she grew up singing in the church choir where her father was the minister. After losing her mother at a young age, Thornton went to work cleaning spittoons in a local saloon at the age of 14 but was soon substituting for one of the regular singers. Thornton was discovered by music promoter Sammy Green who encouraged her to join his Atlanta-based Hot Harlem Revue. Billed as the “new Bessie Smith”, Thornton remained in the group for seven years contributing vocals and harmonica. Acknowledging the influence of Memphis Minnie, Junior Parker, Ma Rainey and Smith, Thornton honed her talent on the road, her musical education was through observation, learning simply by watching other musicians.
Laugh, Laugh, Laugh – Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
After leaving the group Thornton decided to get serious about her career and relocated to Houston in 1948. It wasn’t long before she signed a five-year contract with Peacock Records, owned by flamboyant black entrepreneur Don Robey. “This independent studio, later called Duke-Peacock, was known for gritty rhythm and blues and gospel and was an important influence on soul music and rock and featured artists such as Marie Adams, Johnny Ace, and a young Little Richard.” While living in Houston, Thornton released her first recording under the name Harlem Stars and it was during this time she learned how to play the drums. According to an interview with Rolling Stone, Thornton said, “I got tired of everybody messin’ up, so I just started bangin’.”
Willie Mae on the drums
All Right Baby – Harlem Stars with Big Mama Thornton (1950)
Thornton toured the Chitlin’ Circuit, a string of clubs and venues covering the eastern and southern United States….the same circuit most black artists toured during the 30’s, 40’s and early 50’s. Peacock then sent her to Los Angles to work with producer and band leader Johnny Otis. Thornton began touring with Johnny Otis’s Rhythm and Blues Caravan and in 1952 travelled to New York City with the Otis Show to play the Apollo Theatre where she quickly becoming the headlining act, taking over from Little Esther Phillips.
It was during her tenure at the Apollo she earned the nickname “Big Mama” due not only to her size (she was six feet tall) with a rather robust build, but her voice. She had an “immense, earthy voice” that she didn’t hesitate to use to its fullest. It was while she was in L.A. recording with Otis, the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller offered her the 12-bar blues vocal called ”Hound Dog”. “Her exuberant ‘Hound Dog,’ laden with open sexual references, whoops, and barks, was released nationwide in 1953 and soon topped the R&B charts.” Ian Whitcomb’s description of Thornton singing the song was printed in Notable Black American Women,“When Big Mama sings ‘Hound Dog’ she’s slow and easy and also menacing, smiling like a saber-tooth tiger, her black diamond eyes glinting fiercely.”.
Blues by Big Mama Thornton – Hound Dog and Down Home Shakedown(1965)
(Big Mama, John Lee Hooker, Big Walter Horton & Dr Ross all on harmonica)
Hound Dog – Elvis Presley
By the late 1950’s and early 1960’s her popularity was on the wane. She relocated to San Francisco and continued to perform in local clubs playing harmonica and drums. Thornton continued to record for a number of labels, notably Berkeley-based Arhoolie Records. In 1965 she toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival with great success. In England she recorded her first album — Big Mama Thornton – In Europe — for Arhoolie. She recorded with Muddy Waters in 1966 and performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 and 1968. Her last album for Arhoolie was “Ball and Chain” but it was Janis Joplin’s performance of the song at the Monterey Pop Festival that brought Thornton to forefront once again. “Ball and Chain” was originally recorded for Bay-Tone Records in the early 1960s, but the label chose not to release the song. However, they retained the copyright. This meant that Thornton missed out on any publishing royalties when Joplin later recorded the song for her album Cheap Thrills.. Thornton went on to sign with Mercury, recording her the most successful album of her career, Stronger Than Dirt. As the daughter of a preacher, one of Thornton’s lifetime goals was to record a gospel album and Pentagram Records allowed her to fulfill her dream. Saved was recorded in 1970.
Ball and Chain – Big Mama Thornton & The Buddy Guy Blues Band (1970)
Ball and Chain – Janis Joplin (Monterey)
Playing the harmonica
The American blues revival eventually came to an end but Thornton continued to play small venues. in 1973 Europe was once again calling and Thornton was asked to rejoin the American Folk Blues Festival Tour. She saw Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Finland with the tour ending in Stockholm. As in 1965 the tour garnered recognition and respect from other great musicians who wanted to see them. Thornton continued performing live right up until her death in 1984. Venues included the Newport Jazz Festival with Muddy Waters and B.B. King, concerts at two Northwestern U.S. prisons, a tour through the US and Canada, the Juneteenth Blues Fest in Houston, sharing the bill with John Lee Hooker. “Thornton took part in the Tribal Stomp at Monterey Fairgrounds, Third Annual Sacramento Blues Festival, the Los Angeles Bicentennial Blues with BB King and Muddy Waters, was a guest at an ABC-TV Special hosted by actor Hal Holbrook, joined by Aretha Franklin and toured through the club scene.”
Standing L to R – Koko Taylor, Linda Hopkins, George Wein, Rosetta Reitz, Adelaide Hall, Little Brother Montgomery, Big Mama Thornton, Beulah Bryant; Seaded L-R – Sharon Freeman, Sippie Wallace, Nell Carter (Blues is a Woman Concert, Newport Jazz Festival at Avery Fisher Hall)
Also known for her powerful, sexually explicit lyrics, dressing in men’s clothing for most of her life, heavy drinking and her overt lesbianism, Thornton was a powerful and charismatic singer who lived on the periphery, never quite the success she’d hoped to be. Years of heavy drinking were also taking their toll and began to affect her health. She barely survived a serious auto accident but managed to rally enough to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1983. She died of heart attack at age 57 on July 25, 1984. With acute liver disease and a failing heart, Thornton was in such critical condition near the end of her life her weight dropped 225 pounds — from 350 to 95 pounds — within a very short period of time.
Commenting on her music Thornton stated, “My singin’ comes from my experience….my own experience. I never had no one teach me nothin’. I never went to school for it or nothin’. I taught myself to sing, blow harmonica and even play drums by watchin’ other people. I can read music but I know what I’m singing! I don’t sing nobody but myself.”
Thornton was inducted into the Blue’s Foundations Hall of Fame in 1984. In the year 2000 Thornton was remembered in a dance show called “Sweet Willie Mae.” Andrea E. Woods, who was the choreographer of the show, wanted to celebrate the freedom she found in Thornton’s music. “What makes Willie Mae Thornton’s music so intense and personal,” Woods told the Winston-Salem Journal, “is that she owns the music.” Thornton was also part of an exhibit at the Woman’s Museum in Dallas, where recording of “Hound Dog” playing continuously in a room dedicated to female musicians. Also, the Fund for Women Artists website has a page dedicated to The Big Mama Thornton Project, a collaboration for a play based on Thornton’s life. These are high honors for a woman who died penniless and alone.
Swing Low Sweet Chariot – Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
Wikipedia, YouTube, biography.com, Encyclopedia of Alabama, Mama’s Voice by Maureen Mahon, Encyclopedia.com, Rolling Stone, Winston-Salem Journal, Ian Whitcomb, Notable Black American Women
Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.
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In “real” life Pat Blythe has spent the past 32 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry. After an extended absence Pat is now heading back to the GTA clubs, immersing herself in the local music scene, tasting what’s on offer, talking to people and writing once again — sharing her passions and her deep love of music. Together for 34 years, Pat also worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who shot much of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda and the Imps, Plateau, Buzzsaw, Hellfield….) as well as national and international acts, Currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, Pat is currently compiling a photographic history of the local GTA music scene from 1975 to 1985. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance!