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10 Things You Should Know About Big Mama Thornton

Posted on | December 5, 2009 | No Comments

1. Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, born December 11, 1926 was an American rhythm and blues singer and songwriter on the circuit from the early ’50s until her death in July of 1984.

2. She was forced to begin working at age 14 when her mother died, and got her first chance to sing in public at a saloon where she scrubbed floors after the regular singer quit her job one night.

3. She was the first to record the hit song “Hound Dog” in 1952 The song was #1 on the Billboard R&B charts for seven weeks and the single sold almost two million copies. Three years later, Elvis Presley recorded his version.

4. Lieber and Stoller, who are given songwriting credit for “Hound Dog” were, according to Big Mama, “just a couple of kids then and they had this song written on a paper bag…So I started to sing the words and join in some of my own. All that talkin’ and hollerin’ – that’s my own.” Thornton always felt that she was cheated out of the success she deserved from “Hound Dog” saying “I got one check for $500 and I never seen another.”

5. She wrote and recorded the popular tune “Ball ‘n’ Chain.” Janis Joplin later had a huge hit with “Ball and Chain” in the late 1960s. Janis always spoke of the blues women, and especially Big Mama Thornton as her greatest inspirations.

6. Thornton never received formal training as a singer, was a self-taught drummer and harmonica player and frequently played each instrument onstage.

7. Thornton was one of the eyewitnesses to the accidental self-inflicted handgun death of blues singer Johnny Ace.

8. When Big Mama’s career began to fade in early 1960s, she relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she mostly played local blues clubs.

9. Throughout her career, she played with many blues legends, including Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and James Cotton. She appeared on stages from New York City’s Apollo Theater in 1952 to the Newport Jazz Festival in 1980, and was nominated for the Blues Music Awards six times.

10. In 1984 she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

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