Today you are in for a treat. You may think you don’t know Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, but you do. Big Mama was the first person to record Hound Dog years before Elvis Presley prettied it up and made it palpable for a white audience. Not only did she record it, she sold 2 million copies in the four years before it was recorded by Elvis and rocketed to fame in the mainstream listening audience. Elvis made millions off Hound Dog. Big Mama made only $500.00.
Listen to Big Mama sing this song. Her recording is raunchy and fun. She playfully barks, growls, and yelps. It is full of spunk and joy, just like Big Mama’s performances. Her big personality jumps off the recording and you can see why Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller wrote the song for her. When they showed her the song, written on the back of a paper bag, she immediately put her big voice to work and the result is pure genius.
Willie Mae Thornton was born just outside of Montgomery, AL in Ariton on December 11, 1926. Her father was a preacher. She taught herself to play harmonica when she took her brother’s old harp out of the garbage. (Her brother was an accomplished harmonica player earning the name Harp Thornton.) She also taught herself to sing by listening to Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and how to play drums. She was totally self taught, never learning to read music.
When her mother died, she left home at the age of fourteen and got a job in a tavern in Barbour county (AL) cleaning spittoons. One night the singer was ill and Willie Mae stepped in. From there she was encouraged to enter a talent show in Montgomery where she won and was recruited to join Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Review. So at fourteen, she hit the road with the traveling review and started performing all over the south. After seven years with the show, she settled in Houston, TX.
While in Houston, Thornton worked with Johnny Otis and Don Robey who signed her to Peacock Records, later Duke-Peacock the label of Johnny Ace and a young Little Richard. The promoters kept the talent on the road, rarely gave them royalties and sometimes just downright stole from them. At this point in her career, she embarked on what was known as the notorious Chitlin’ Circuit. There were many names for the Circuit, Little Harlem, Bronzeville, but they all had one thing in common, The Stroll, a street filled with bars, stores, and chicken and waffle places. It was a safe place for black residents to go and find entertainment and for black entertainers to safely find work.
But these entertainers were not getting rich. They were barely making ends meet. It was brutal. Living out of suitcases. Traveling sometimes hundreds of miles between back to back gigs. (For a great article on the Chitlin’ Circuit go to NPR The Story of the Chitlin’ Circuit.) During this period of traveling and performing Willie Mae became Big Mama when performing at The Apollo in Harlem. She was given the name for both her voice, her six foot frame and her larger than life personality.
It was well known around the circuit that Big Mama was not one to trifle with. She kept a pistol in her purse and if a club owner tried to cheat her out of pay as often happened, she wasn’t afraid to confront him and get what was coming to her. Nor was she shy about heading into the recording studios and demanding a check from Don Robey’s secretaries who were more than happy to oblige. She would usually wind up spending the money before getting home, hanging out a nearby bars drinking and bullshitting with customers.
It was during one of these shows on Christmas Day in 1954 that the incident that stayed with Big Mama her whole life happened. It is a good example of the carefree and careless life of the blues musician on the road. Johnny Ace was 25. He was handsome, wild and set to be the next crossover pop star. He and Big Mama had recorded Yes, Baby. Listen below and you can hear how much fun they had together.
They were touring together and were performing at Houston City Auditorium Christmas night. Between sets Johnny Ace, Big Mama Thornton, and Johnny’s girlfriend, Olivia Gibbs were hanging out in the dressing room when Johnny Ace shot himself. The story gets a little sketchy. The rumor persisted that he was playing Russian Roulette and that story was printed in the paper. But according to Big Mama Thornton’s statement to police, Johnny Ace was drinking and playing around with the gun. She took it away from him, but he sweet talked her and she gave it back, thinking she had taken the last bullet out. He pointed it at his girlfriend to show it wasn’t loaded, then he pointed it to his own temple and pulled the trigger saying, “It’s okay. Gun’s not loaded… See?” (Or something to that effect.) But the gun had one bullet in the chamber and Johnny Ace was dead.
Eventually, Big Mama’s contract was up and as tours began to dry up in mid to late 1950’s, she once again pulled up roots and headed to San Francisco to perform with an old friend, Clarence “Gatemouth”Brown. There were some lean years, but with the renewed interest in folk and original blues of the mid 1960s things began to improve. She was invited to go to Europe with Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy in 1965 on the American Folk Blues Festival. And she was a constant at the California Blues and Folk Festivals.
Big Mama was known for wearing menswear on stage. She was a presence — a force to be reckoned with. She was quick to tell an interviewer that Elvis never gave her “nothin’ not a nod — not nothin'” when he recorded Hound Dog and that he had in fact refused to perform with her when asked to during a promotion.
Big Mama was known for getting into trouble and would sometimes pull her pistol on her neighbors. What saved her from doing too much time in jail was a policeman who loved her pies. It was rumored that she always kept a fresh pie baked for when she drank too much and might need one to talk herself out of a trip to the jailhouse. Not sure if this story is true, but I remember reading or hearing it a long time ago. I think the policeman was called “Pot Belly” and it said he would return to the station without Big Mama but with pie stains on his uniform. Maybe her rowdy ways were the inspiration for her song, Jail.
Was it luck or fate, maybe a little of both, when in San Francisco Arhoolie Records producer, Chris Strarzwitz a man dedicated to saving the music being swept aside by its prodigy rock n roll, recorded her in 1966. A virtually unknown young blues singer heard Big Mama and asked permission to sing Big Mama’s original Ball and Chain around the clubs in San Francisco. Big Mama was more than happy to have this Texas singer perform her song, and in 1968 at Monterey both the song and the singer, Janis Joplin became a phenomenal hit. Here’s Big Mama singing her song, Ball and Chain.
Big Mama seemed genuinely pleased to report that she received royalties from Janice for Ball and Chain. I think she appreciated the recognition. Especially, after Elvis borrowed from her rendition of Hound Dog without ever mentioning her recording the song first.
The last few years of her life were not good. For a woman known to be robust and full of life, Big Mama lost a great deal of weight and had substantial health issues. She weighed only 97 pounds when she was found dead of a heart attack in a Los Angeles boardinghouse on July 25, 1984. Years of drinking and hard living had taken their toll. One of the saddest things to me is that Big Mama Thornton shares a spot in the Inglewood Cemetery with two other paupers who died the same day. A blues legend buried with two strangers. But ain’t that the blues.
This is her last known performance. She is weak. Her clothes are too big. But you can see her spirit is still strong. There is still a sparkle in her eyes. She is still Big Mama, but you can tell she is fading fast, so watch with caution.
It is hard to believe that Big Mama Thornton was only fifty-seven in the above performance. Her life of hard living and drinking took its toll. But I can’t leave you here. No just like Big Mama said, “Only the strong survive.” Let me leave you with one of my favorite of her songs. Everything Gonna Be Alright
I have to say, listening to Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton sing this, I think everything just might be alright indeed.
More Big Mama Thornton on Tea Cakes and Whiskey You Tube.