Big Mama Thornton — The Big Mama of American Blues

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Big Mama Thornton - Sassy Mama Live at the Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club Album Cover - Artwork by John Rummen
       

You ain’t nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin’ ’round the door

We’ve all probably heard those lines at some point in our lives, whether in a commercial, cartoon, or some movie that’s good for playing in the background while you do other things. And most of us have only heard this song through the youthful growl of the heartthrob that would later be crowned the “king of rock and roll,” Elvis Presley. The words above may look a little familiar, but that’s no mistake. That’s because this song — the song Maureen Mahon, a music professor at New York University, says “is seen as an important beginning of rock-and-roll” — was originally sung by Willie Mae Thornton, or as she was known in the world of blues — Big Mama Thornton.

Daughter of a preacher man, born on December 11, 1926, in Ariton, Alabama (though she claimed Montgomery), she grew up singing and falling in love with music following the beautiful Black tradition — the church. Inspired by rhythm-and-blues singers Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, at an early age, she threw caution to the wind and left home to pursue a music career. This is the same time her mother passed away, and though it is unknown if this propelled her to go, but for a young Black girl growing into her womanhood to lose her mother in the ‘40s in the rural South around nothing but racist and men, I’m sure that venturing into the dark unknown to pursue a dream that could never be didn’t seem like the most frightening option.

After achieving several years of local success, she joined Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue and was soon billed as the “New Bessie Smith” — her idol. She was a singer, songwriter, drummer, and harmonica player, and after many years as a traveling blues singer, she took her talents to Houston to record. While in Houston, she signed to Don Robey’s Peacock Records in 1951 and became a success, traveling throughout the eastern and southern United States, including early career highlights performing at Houston’s Bronze Peacock and Harlem’s Cotton Club.

Yes, you told me you was high-class
But I could see through that
And daddy, I know
You ain’t no real cool cat

It isn’t easy to assess success for Black artists in the Jim Crow south. Some of our most iconic legends were only “locally” or “moderately” successful compared to their white counterparts. What’s considered a benchmark hit of Rock ‘n’ Roll was one of Big Mama’s earliest and most popular songs of her career, “Hound Dog.” Released in 1953, the record topped the R&B charts for seven weeks and sold over two million copies nationwide. Although the song brought fame, it brought very little fortune, earning her a measly and disrespectful $500. Three years later, a young “impressionable” artist, Elvis Presley, would release his version, which went on to sell over ten million copies.

Blues music befell the same fate as jazz music, transitioning from the ’50s to the ’60s, falling out of popularity in favor of rock ‘n’ roll. With Thornton’s popularity slowly fading, she moved to the striking hills and beautiful Victorian-lined streets of San Francisco, where she continued her career. Even though blues wasn’t as popular, there was still a core audience, which, much like today, is conducive to the festival circuit. She traveled Europe performing at festivals and blues and jazz concerts and the local Bay Area and LA club scene.

In one of these clubs, she sang a song that would become her second career-defining song, “Ball And Chain,” and this song caught the ear of acclaimed singer Janis Joplin. Joplin later crafted a version of the song and sang it at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Thornton finally released her version that following year, but it didn’t receive its due acclaim until Joplin’s version was released later that year. As with many blues artists and Black artists in general, there were contract and copyright issues, though Thornton did say in an interview that she gave permission to Joplin and that she was fairly compensated.

And while her career was experiencing a powerful and much-deserved surge in the ’70s due to a second wave of interest in blues music, her health was slowly deteriorating from years of heavy drinking. She released multiple projects in the final lap of her accomplished life. In one last stand, she manifested the strength to perform at the 1983 Newport Jazz Festival with a lineup that included Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Lloyd Glenn after recovering from a horrible automobile accident. She passed away in 1984, at the far too early age of 57, in Los Angeles on July 25, due to complications following a heart attack. Her stature, voice, talent, and larger-than-life unapologetic personality will live on forever, with her immortal words echoing the hall of music history.

You ain’t nothing but a hound dog
Quit snoopin’ ’round the door
You ain’t nothing but a hound dog
Quit snoopin’ ’round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain’t gonna feed you no more, oh!

You can hear Big Mama Thornton sing “Ball And Chain” and “Hound Dog” on Justin Time Records Essentials Collection and Nettwerk Records remastered, limited edition, exclusive vinyl-only release of Sassy Mama Live at the Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton.

Track List:

Side A
1. Tell Me Pretty Baby
2. Rock Me Baby
3. Ball And Chain
4. Watermelon Man

Side B
1. Summertime
2. Medley: Hound Dog/Walkin’ The Dog
3. Medley: Sweet Little Angel/Three O’Clock
4. Sassy Mama
5. Hound Dog (Nerdstar Remix)

For more information on Justin Time Records, please visit www.justin-time.com.

~ J. Frederick Robinson

Frederick Robinson is a writer from San Francisco who has been featured in multiple online publications. Currently, he is in the process of releasing a book focused on profiles of the unseen hospitality figures from the south side of Chicago under the creative collaboration, The Prism Project. Follow him on Medium.com.