Talent is in abundance in this world waiting to be mined out, polished and then flaunted. But often talent alone isn’t enough. As a matter of fact, it’s a misconception that talented individuals always get their due recognition. In truth, talent and fame are connected by the delicate thread called luck. Unfair as it may seem, that is how it is.
Willie Mae Thornton was one such wildly talented artist who didn’t get to enjoy the stardom she deserved. With her bold voice and unique style, she set out to conquer the rhythm and blues genre in the late 1940s. The manager of Apollo Theatre Frank Schiffman gave her the nickname “Big Mama” owning to her powerful voice and personality. Thornton herself boasted that no microphone could be as loud as her voice.
“My singing comes from my experience… My own experience. I never had no one teach me nothin’. I never went to school for music or nothin’. I taught myself to sing and to blow harmonica and even to play drums by watchin’ other people! I can’t read music, but I know what I’m singing! I don’t sing like nobody but myself” stated Big Mama proudly without any hesitation.
Being an African-American in a racially segregated country and being a woman in the male-dominated industry didn’t scare her off either. In fact, she subverted the role of a traditional African-American woman, laying the stepping stones for future generations.
On the occasion of her birthday, let’s revisit her six most defining songs of her career. We might be 36 years late in appreciating the sheer talent and celebrating the fierce personality, but as the proverb goes — better late than never!
Six definitive songs of Big Mama Thornton:
‘Partnership Blues’ (1951)
After Thornton decided to move out from her hometown in Alabama to Houston in 1948, her career in music kicked off by signing a contract with the Peacock Records. The song ‘Partnership Blues’ was recorded in the same year and it came with a strong jazzy tang.
The song was about an extra-marital affair where she lamented about having to share her man with his lawful wife. The song’s music arrangement contained big band style instrumental backing and a guitar solo at the end.
In her very first recording, Thornton proved that she was worthy of all the praise in the world.
‘Hound Dog’ (1952)
At the time, in the hubs of Los Angeles and Texas, there was a brand new style of R&B coming out of the city’s smoky clubs. ‘Hound Dog’ was exactly that kind of down-home dirty blues which had been gathering so much excitement. Written by the pair Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, it put Thornton at the top of the R&B charts.
The pair who were present at the recording studio directed Thornton on how to use her voice for the song: “We wanted her to growl it.”
The record sold more than half a million copies and helped to bring the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. Three years later Elvis Presley bleached the song that began as “an anthem of black female power.” Though it irritated the songwriters, it helped the song gain a new fanbase as Elvis sold an astonishing ten million copies of the single.
‘Black Rat’ (1966)
Her career faced a setback in the late 1950s and early 1960s forcing her to migrate to San Francisco Bay area picking up guest spots at the clubs and venues around the city.
Here she signed and recorded with the label Arhoolie Records. Her success in the American Folk Blues Festival in 1965 made her renowned in England. The country was utterly captivated by the sounds of the blues and to have a female singing them was a novelty that few could pass up. When the realisation dawned that Thornton sang the songs better than most, she became a fan favourite.
In the same year, she recorded the first album for Arhoolie named Big Mama Thornton – In Europe. But it was her second album Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band which created a buzz once again. The song ‘Black Rat’ exhibits her magnificent range as a musician.
‘Ball and Chain’ (1968)
The momentum gained from her previous successes restored Thornton’s confidence. She wrote and recorded this exceptional song which though disappointed commercially, was a true gem.
Janis Joplin, who was immensely influenced by the R&B diva’s singing style, covered the song and performed it live several times. Joplin’s version, which was released in her album Cheap Trills, revitalised the latent potential of the song making it a hit.
Though Thornton did not receive any royalty for her song, Joplin gave her the recognition and respect she deserved by having Thornton open for her. Thornton praised Joplin’s version saying, “That girl feels like I do.”
‘Go Down Moses’ (1969)
Thornton’s gospel background influenced her style a lot. In fact, she was introduced to music in a gospel church where her father was a minister and mother was a singer. This informal training later helped her during the gospel album under Pentagram Records called Saved.
Though she developed a different vocal style by then, Thornton nailed the delivery of this gospel ditty with the consummate ease of a natural. Though equally, the album consists of beautiful songs like ‘Oh, Happy Day,’ ‘Down By The Riverside,’ ‘Glory, Glory Hallelujah’ and ‘Lord Save Me,’ this one is a standout.
The lack of recognition of her career pushed Thornton further towards alcoholism. By the 1970s her health had started to deteriorate. As if things weren’t already bad enough, Thornton met with an automobile accident and got badly injured.
But, defiant as ever, the singer continued performing, refusing to give up her life’s work.
Her live performances at multiple North-West US prisons were recorded and compiled into an album called Jail. Keeping her bad luck and struggles in mind, the opening line of the title track which said “Well, here I am again” seems more heartwrenching.