WILLIE MAE "BIG MAMA” THORNTON
Born Binnie Willie Mae Thornton, 11 December 1926, Ariton, Alabama
Willie Mae Thornton wasn’t called “Big Mama” for nothing. She weighed 300 pounds, had a robust, powerful voice and a larger than life personality. She is one of only a very small handful of recording artists to have the dubious distinction of having her first charted record reach number one (on the R&B charts), and then to never have another chart entry again.
Born in rural Alabama, Willie Mae was exposed to music at a young age in the church where her father was a minister. She grew up singing in its choir, along with her mother (who died when she was only fourteen) and six siblings. She never received any formal musical training, either for voice, or for the instruments she played (harmonica and drums). As a true musician, she was able to watch others play and then try things out until she got them right. She has cited blues singers Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie as her main influences.
Thornton began her career by winning first prize in a local talent contest as a 14-year old. She left home and hitched to Atlanta where she found a job with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue, initially as a dancer and comedienne, later as vocalist and drummer. In 1948 she left Green and settled in Houston, Texas, where she quickly established herself on the lively R&B scene. Her first sides were recorded in 1950, with the Harlem Stars, for the E&W label. The next year Thornton signed a five-year contract with Don Robey’s Peacock label. Her second single, “Let Your Tears Fall Baby”, generated some local action, but the real breakthrough came when she joined Johnny Otis’s Rhythm and Blues Caravan in Los Angeles in 1952. Otis negotiated a deal with Robey that he would record Thornton (and other Peacock artists) in L.A. with his own band.
During a two-day session at Radio Recorders in August 1952, Willie Mae recorded eight songs. One of them was “Hound Dog”, written - at Johnny Otis’s request - by two white 19-year old songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were present at the session. At first Thornton sang the song in a crooning style, to the dismay of Jerry Leiber, who wanted her to growl. Though Leiber met with a scornful riposte by Thornton (“Don’t you white boy tell me how to sing no blues”), Otis came to his rescue and said “You sing it, Jerry”. Then Big Mama got it. As Mike Stoller puts it in the Leiber-Stoller autobiography “Hound Dog” : “She heard the rough-and-tough of the song, and, just as important, the implicit sexual humor”. But the drummer wasn’t getting the right feel and Jerry Leiber suggested that Johnny Otis would play drums. “Who’s gonna run the session?”, Otis asked. Leiber and Stoller answered : “We will”. That’s how they got started as producers. Otis has claimed that he co-wrote “Hound Dog" (and was credited as such on the initial Peacock pressings), but Leiber and Stoller insisted that he did not co-write the song and won a court case.
“Hound Dog” wasn’t released until March 2, 1953, and quickly shot to the # 1 position on the R&B charts, where it stayed for seven weeks. With this success, Thornton joined the Blues Consolidated Package Show, which featured Johnny Ace, Junior Parker and Bobby Bland. Following the death of Johnny Ace in late 1954, she rejoined the Johnny Otis Show and toured coast-to-coast, climaxing with appearances at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. But Otis and Robey just couldn’t get another hit record with Big Mama. “I Smell A Rat” (another Leiber-Stoller song) came close in 1954, but the disc faced stiff competition from a cover by Young Jessie on Modern. Her last record for Peacock was “Just Like A Dog (Barking Up the Wrong Tree)”, but when it was released in 1956, a new dog in Memphis was barking and changing the musical landscape for good … Big Mama sold few records after leaving Peacock in 1957. She left Houston, toured with Gatemouth Brown, then moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, recording for a host of small labels throughout the decade. She stole the show at the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival and the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival and toured Europe. Between 1966 and 1968 she recorded some of her best work for Chris Strachwitz’s Arhoolie label. Her fortunes received a boost when Janis Joplin recorded a cover of her song “Ball and Chain” (which she had written in 1961, but did not record until 1968). She continued to tour and would often headline blues festivals. In 1969-70 Thornton made two LP's for Mercury, before moving to the Vanguard label. The album “Jail” (1975) was recorded live before a prison audience. Her last recordings were made for Buddha and Crazy Cajun.
Willie Mae was hospitalised for some time in the 1980s, due to excessive drinking, and from then on her appearances became rarer and rarer. Her weight withered to less than 100 pounds. She died of a heart attack on 25th July 1984 at her home in Los Angeles. Gone was one of the most colourful characters of the blues. Only a few months after her death she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
According to Wikipedia, “Hound Dog” has been recorded more than 250 times. Mostly by male artists, although the song was written for a woman and makes no sense when it is sung by a man, even when “quit snooping round my door” is replaced by “crying all the time". Despite the record’s huge sales (estimates vary from 500,000 to over two million), Thornton received only $ 500. In contrast, Elvis Presley’s 1956 version brought him both fame and considerable financial reward. This is perhaps the most notorious example of the inequity that often existed when a black original was covered by a white artist.
More info :
Biography : Michael Spörke, Big Mama Thornton : The Life and Music. Jefferson, NC : McFarland, 2014. 188 pages.
Acknowledgements : Ray Topping, Michael Spörke, James Nadal, Lee Cotten.
Dik, April 2015
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