Big Mama (Willie Mae) Thornton was born in Ariton, Alabama, on December 11, 1926. She was exposed to music at a young age in the church where her father was a minister, and grew up singing in its choir, along with her mother and six siblings. Willie Mae also learned drums and harmonica, perhaps from a brother who was an outstanding player, later known as “Harp” Thornton. Her mother died young, when Thornton was only 14 years old, and Willlie Mae left school and got a job washing and cleaning spittoons in a local tavern.
In 1940 she left home and, with the help of Diamond Teeth Mary, music promoter Sammy Green soon discovered Thornton and recruited her to join his Atlanta-based Hot Harlem Revue. She remained with the group for seven years, contributing drum and harmonica parts to the show as well as vocals. In 1948, she settled in Houston, Texas, determined to advance her career as a singer. She would tour the southeast with the group for seven years.
Thornton relocated to Houston to get off the road and take advantage of their burgeoning club scene. There she met bandleader Johnny Otis and promoter Don Robey, who were impressed that in addition to singing she could play harmonica and drums. In 1951, she was signed to her first record contract by Peacock Records. A year later, she was headlining shows at the Apollo Theatre, where she first became known as ‘Big Mama’ (Thornton stood 6 feet tall and weighed over 300 pounds).
In 1953, she would release the biggest hit of her career – “Hound Dog”. In August 1952, at a recording session in southwest Los Angeles, she was approached by the young songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller — soon to become rock & roll legends. They offered her a 12-bar blues vocal called “Hound Dog,” which she liked and paired on a single with her own “They Call Me Big Mama” on the B-side.
In an interview with music critic Ralph Gleason, Thornton recalls, “They were just a couple of kids and they had the song written on the back of a paper bag.” Authorship of the song is a matter of dispute, however. Both Johnny Otis, who produced the track, and the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have claimed credit for the song.
She added a few lyrics and toyed with the rhythm. The song would go on to top the rhythm and blues charts for nine weeks after its release. Her exuberant “Hound Dog,” laden with open sexual references, whoops, and barks, was released nationwide in 1953 and soon topped the R&B charts. Despite its sale of two million copies, Thornton received only $500, the flat fee for recording.
In contrast, Elvis Presley’s 1956 version:
Which was heavily refined for mainstream audiences, brought him both fame and considerable financial reward.
Thornton originally recorded her next most popularly known song, “Ball ‘n’ Chain” for Bay-Tone Records in the early 1960s, “and though the label chose not to release the song…they did hold on to the copyright” — which meant that Thornton missed out on the publishing royalties when Janis Joplin recorded the song later in the decade. However, there are released versions of the song by Big Mama.
It was not until Janis Joplin covered Thornton’s “Ball ‘n’ Chain” that it became a hit. Thornton did not receive compensation for her song, but Joplin gave her the recognition she deserved by having Thornton open for her. Joplin found her singing voice through Thornton, who praised Joplin’s version of “Ball ‘n’ Chain”, saying, “That girl feels like I do.” Janis’ famous performance at the 1967 Monterey pop festival stunned the audience and brought her to the wider attention of the music world.
Thornton subsequently received greater recognition for her popular songs, but she is still underappreciated for her influence on the blues, rock & roll and soul music. Thornton’s music was also influential in shaping American popular music. The lack of appreciation she received for “Hound Dog” and “Ball ‘n’ Chain” as they became popular hits is representative of the lack of recognition she received during her career as a whole.
Thornton was found dead at age 57 by medical personnel in a Los Angeles boarding house on July 25, 1984. She died of heart and liver disorders due to her longstanding alcohol abuse. She had lost 255 pounds (116 kg) in a short time as a result of illness, her weight dropping from 350 to 95 pounds (159–43 kg).
During her career, Thornton 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”.