Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984) was an American rhythm and blues singer and songwriter. She was the first to record Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog” in 1952, which became her biggest hit. It spent seven weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B charts in 1953 and sold almost two million copies.
However, her success was overshadowed three years later, when Elvis Presley recorded his more popular rendition of “Hound Dog”. Similarly, Thornton’s “Ball ‘n’ Chain” (written in 1961 but not released until 1968) had a bigger impact when performed and recorded by Janis Joplin in the late 1960s.
Thornton’s performances were characterized by her deep, powerful voice and strong sense of self. She was given her nickname, “Big Mama,” by Frank Schiffman, manager of Harlem’s Apollo Theater, due to her big voice, size, and personality. T
hornton specialized in playing drums and harmonica as well as singing, and she taught herself how to play these instruments simply by watching other musicians perform. Her style was heavily influenced by the gospel music that she witnessed growing up in the home of a preacher, though her genre could be described as blues.
Thornton was famous for her transgressive gender expression. She often dressed as a man in her performances, wearing items such as work shirts and slacks. This led to many rumors about her sexuality, though none confirmed. Her improvisation was a notable part of her performance.
She often enters call-and-response exchanges with her band, inserting confident and notably subversive remarks. Her play with gender and sexuality set the stage for later rock ‘n’ roll artists’ own plays with sexuality.
Feminist scholars such as Maureen Mahon often praise Thornton for subverting traditional roles of African American women. She added a female voice to a field that was dominated by white males, and her strong personality transgressed patriarchal and white supremacist stereotypes of what an African American woman should be. This transgression was an integral part of her performance and stage persona.
Thornton’s birth certificate states that she was born in Ariton, Alabama, but in an interview with Chris Strachwitz she claims Montgomery, Alabama as her birthplace, probably because Montgomery was a better known place than Ariton. Her introduction to music started in a Baptist church, where her father was a minister and her mother a church singer. She and her six siblings began to sing at very early ages.
Her mother died early and Thornton left school and got a job washing and cleaning spittoons in the local tavern.
In 1940 Thornton left home and, with the help of Diamond Teeth Mary, joined Sammy Greens Hot Harlem Revue and was soon billed as the “New Bessie Smith”. Although her introduction to music started within the church, Thornton’s musical education came through pure observation of Rhythm and Blues artists Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, whom she admired deeply.