The rawest of the 1950’s female rock singers, the most imposing and one of the best whose legacy has been reduced to having the original versions of two enduring songs, both brought to their widest prominence by white stars which in a perverse way has kept her name from slipping through the cracks of history.

Willie Mae Thornton was born in Alabama in 1926, the daughter of a minister. In her early teens she was working cleaning spittoons in a bar when the resident singer was too drunk to perform and she talked the owner into letting her sing instead and was impressive enough to take on the job full time after that.

But she was also working side gigs, reportedly on a garbage truck where she was noticed singing by Diamond Teeth Mary, the half-sister of one of her early idols Bessie Smith, who encouraged her to enter the talent contest run by Sammy Green who was in town with his Hot Harlem Musical Revue. The fourteen year old won the contest and her mother having died a year earlier she hit the road, singing, playing drums and harmonica, dancing and telling jokes on stage for a decade until splitting with the outfit in 1948 in a dispute over money.

Now residing in Houston she got a job at the Eldorado Club singing for fifty dollars a night and cut her first record, which she wrote, but was released under the name The Harlem Stars on the just started – and soon ended – E&W Records label.

Thornton soon was signed by Don Robey to sing in his Bronze Peacock Club, the best venue in Houston and by the end of the year was in the studio recording for him. Though during the 1940’s with the Hot Harlem Revue she was singing predominantly blues in the style of current stars Memphis Minnie, she had been immediately swayed by the sounds of Roy Brown in the late 1940’ and subsequently was shifting her style to rock ‘n’ roll with horns, rolling rhythms and a greater emphasis on upbeat content.

Over the next five years Thornton was a cornerstone of Peacock Records with a string of classic sides but couldn’t break through to a wider audience. In 1952 she appeared on a bill with Johnny Otis who was still looking for a replacement for Little Esther who’d been the female vocal star of his show in 1950 and into 1951 and was impressed by Thornton’s performance. Though she was a much different singer, both in style and appearance, he took her on the road with him for the rest of the year, where she first started being billed as Big Mama Thornton. At the tail end of 1952 she cut “Hound Dog” with Otis’s band, her most legendary side written specifically for her by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, not their first composition but the first record they produced.

When the record was finally released months later it shot to Number One on the charts and now, on the road with Johnny Ace, she had to re-learn it by listening to the record. Though she was able to tour for years off the strength of it, Thornton got all of $500 for the session.

More great sides followed but the changing demographics for rock didn’t seem to have room for a physically imposing female who could out-shout any man on the bill and would fire the drummer on stage and take his place to the delight of audiences who were often completely unaware of her abilities on the instrument.

As with so many veteran black performers who didn’t fit rock’s more youthful late 1950’s image, Thornton was re-labeled a blues artist to play festivals, although in her case she was just as comfortable in that style as any, but her record deals on smaller labels that followed were an exercise in frustration. In 1960 she wrote and recorded “Ball And Chain” only to see it go unreleased at the time. In 1967 Janis Joplin sang it at the Monterey Pop Festival with Big Brother & The Holding Company in one of that week’s most acclaimed performances which brought belated attention back to Thornton,as Elvis Presley’s reviving “Hound Dog” had done more than a decade earlier.

The interest in her now came largely as a result of the white renditions of her songs but it did enable her to play larger venues again and over the next few years she was as active as she’d been in years.

By the early Seventies, having slimmed won considerably, she began making television appearances and seemed poised for a comeback but the records she made then didn’t live up to her reputation and years of alcohol abuse and incessant smoking began taking a considerable toll on her. By the early 1980’s she was a shell of her former self, though she continued working, often singing from a chair on stage with a voice that had lost most of its luster.

Thornton died of a heart-attack at the age of 57 in 1984, the same year she was inducted into The Blues Hall Of Fame. Johnny Otis presided at her funeral.
BIG MAMA THORNTON DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(E&W 100; approximately Spring, 1950)
As by The Harlem Stars… An impressive debut for Thornton who wrote the song and sings it with exuberance and an instinctive feel for the rhythm and though the backing is a little thin the band plays with admirable spirit making this a good showcase for a potential star. (6)

(Peacock 1567; January, 1951)
Paired with a tighter and more diverse band who may in fact overshadow Thornton slightly here, or at least cause her to speed up to keep pace, she nevertheless comes off sounding good, selling this psychological drama with admirable flair and energy. (6)

(Peacock 1587; November, 1951)
Aside from Thornton’s forceful vocal reading and the tight band behind her, what stands out here is the way she twists the narrative to make her, the one who’d been dumped, as the one in charge, providing a proto-feminist viewpoint that is refreshing and very effective. (7)

(Peacock 1587; November, 1951)
Though competently executed and a good idea to downshift into something more introspective from the top half, the bluesier qualities of this record make for an uncomfortable fit in rock ‘n’ roll… not entirely detached from it, but not emphasizing the connection enough. (3)

(Peacock 1603; July, 1952)
A song that lives up to its colorful title with a sly, racy story sold in fine fashion by Thornton and if the band isn’t playing quite as authoritatively as we’d like, the arrangement itself has the right idea in making sure it doesn’t let up. (7)

(Peacock 1603; July, 1952)
A stylistically conflicting record with blues elements mixed with rock and gospel, but the one thing that impresses is Thornton herself who shows tremendous vocal power and control no matter the requirements at each stage of the song. (4)