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Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton only notched one national hit in her lifetime, but it was a true monster. "Hound Dog" held down the top slot on Billboard's R&B charts for seven long weeks in 1953. Alas, Elvis Presley's rocking 1956 cover was even bigger, effectively obscuring Thornton's chief claim to immortality.
That's a damned shame, because Thornton's menacing growl was indeed something special. The hefty belter first opened her pipes in church but soon embraced the blues. She toured with Sammy Green's Hot Harlem Revue during the 1940s. Thornton was ensconced on the Houston circuit when Peacock Records boss Don Robey signed her in 1951. She debuted on Peacock with "Partnership Blues" that year, backed by trumpeter Joe Scott's band.
But it was her third Peacock date with Johnny Otis' band that proved the winner. With Pete Lewis laying down some truly nasty guitar behind her, Big Mama shouted "Hound Dog," a tune whose authorship remains a bone of contention to this day (both Otis and the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller claim responsibility), and soon hit the road a star.
But it was an isolated incident. Though Thornton cut some fine Peacock follow-ups -- "I Smell a Rat," "Stop Hoppin' on Me," "The Fish," "Just like a Dog" -- through 1957, she never again reached the hit parade. Even Elvis was apparently unaware of her; he was handed "Hound Dog" by Freddie Bell, a Vegas lounge rocker. Early-'60s 45s for Irma, Bay-Tone, Kent, and Sotoplay did little to revive her sagging fortunes, but a series of dates for Arhoolie that included her first vinyl rendition of "Ball and Chain" in 1968 and two albums for Mercury in 1969-1970 put her back in circulation (Janis Joplin's overwrought but well-intentioned cover of "Ball and Chain" didn't hurt either). Along with her imposing vocals, Thornton began to emphasize her harmonica skills during the 1960s.
Thornton was a tough cookie. She dressed like a man and took no guff from anyone, even as the pounds fell off her once-ample frame and she became downright scrawny during the last years of her life. Medical personnel found her lifeless body in an L.A. rooming house in 1984.
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", had a bigger impact when performed and recorded by Janis Joplin in the late 1960s.
Early life 
Thornton was born in Ariton, Alabama. 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. Thornton left Montgomery at age 14 in 1941, following her mother's death. She joined Sammy Green's Georgia-based Hot Harlem Revue. Her seven-year tenure with them, which included touring the South, gave her valuable singing and stage experience. In 1948, she settled in Houston, Texas, where she hoped to further her career as a singer. She was also a self-taught drummer and harmonica player, and frequently played each instrument onstage.
In Houston, her career began to take off. She signed a recording contract with Peacock Records in 1951 and performed at the Apollo Theater in 1952. Also in 1952, she recorded "Hound Dog" while working with another Peacock artist, Johnny Otis. Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were present at the recording, with Leiber singing the song in the style they had envisioned. The record was produced by Otis, and went to number one on the R&B chart. Although the record made her a star, she saw little of the profits. In 1954, Thornton was one of the eyewitnesses to the accidental self-inflicted handgun death of blues singer Johnny Ace. She continued to record for Peacock until 1957 and performed with R&B package tours with Junior Parker and Esther Phillips.
As her career began to fade in the late 1950s and early 1960s, she left Houston and relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she mostly played local blues clubs and began an association with Berkeley-based Arhoolie Records. In 1965, she toured with the American Folk Blues Festival package in Europe. While in England that year, she recorded her first album for Arhoolie, titled Big Mama Thornton — In Europe. It featured backing by blues veterans Buddy Guy (guitar), Fred Below (drums), Eddie Boyd (keyboards), Jimmy Lee Robinson (bass), and Walter "Shakey" Horton (harmonica), except for three songs which Fred McDowell provided acoustic slide guitar.
In 1966, Thornton recorded her second album for Arhoolie titled Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band – 1966, with Muddy Waters (guitar), Sammy Lawhorn (guitar), James Cotton (harmonica), Otis Spann (piano), Luther Johnson (bass guitar), and Francis Clay (drums). She performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 and 1968. Her last album for Arhoolie, Ball n' Chain, was released in 1968. It was made up of tracks from her two previous albums, plus her composition "Ball and Chain" and the standard "Wade in the Water". A small combo including her frequent guitarist Edward "Bee" Houston provided backup for the two songs. Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company's performance of "Ball 'n' Chain" at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and release of the song on their number one album Cheap Thrills renewed interest in Thornton's career.
By 1969, she signed with Mercury Records, who released her most successful album Stronger Than Dirt, which reached number 198 in the Billboard Top 200 record chart. In the 1970s years of heavy drinking began to hurt Thornton's health. She was in a serious auto accident, but recovered to perform at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival with Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, a recording of which is called The Blues — A Real Summit Meeting released by Buddha Records. One of Thornton's last albums was Jail for Vanguard Records in 1975. It captured her performances during mid-1970s concerts at two Northwestern U.S. prisons. She was backed by a blues ensemble that featured sustained jams from George "Harmonica" Smith, as well as guitarists Doug Macleod, Bee Houston and Steve Wachsman, drummer Todd Nelson, saxophonist Bill Potter, bassist Bruce Sieverson, and pianist J. D. Nicholson.
In 1979, she performed at the San Francisco Blues Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival in 1980. Thornton continued to work the blues festival circuit until her death of a heart attack in Los Angeles on July 25, 1984, at age 57.
During her career, she was nominated for the Blues Music Awards six times. In 1984, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In addition to "Ball 'n' Chain" and "They Call Me Big Mama," Thornton wrote twenty other blues songs. Her "Ball 'n' Chain" is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll".