Big Mama Thornton Biography

11 December 1926, Montgomery, Alabama, USA, d. 25 July 1984, Los Angeles, California, USA. Willie Mae Thornton was the daughter of a minister and learned drums and harmonica as a child. By the early 40s she was singing and dancing in Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue throughout the southern states. Basing herself in Texas, she made her first records as Big Mama Thornton for Peacock in 1951. Two years later she topped the R&B charts with the original version of ‘Hound Dog’, the Leiber And Stoller song that Elvis Presley would later make world famous. The backing was by Johnny Otis’ band with Pete Lewis contributing a memorable guitar solo. Thornton toured with Otis and recorded less successfully for Peacock until 1957 when she moved to California. There she made records for Bay-Tone (1961), Sotoplay (1963) and Kent (1964). Her career took a new turn when she joined the 1965 Folk Blues Festival troupe and entranced audiences in Europe. The next year, Arhoolie Records recorded her in Chicago with Muddy Waters, James Cotton and Otis Spann. A 1968 live album for the same label included ‘Ball And Chain’ which inspired Janis Joplin’s notable version of the song. She sang some pop standards on her 1969 Mercury Records release, and in the 70s she recorded for Backbeat, Vanguard Records and Crazy Cajun. On 1975’s Jail, recorded before prison audiences, she performed new versions of ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Ball And Chain’. Thornton died in Los Angeles in July 1984.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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