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The mother of rock and roll: The extraordinary life of Big Mama Thornton

Big Mama Thornton is one of the most influential figures in the whole of rock, even if you’ve never heard of her. Born Willie Mae Thornton in Ariton, Alabama, in 1926, Thornton would rank amongst the very first women in music to stick it to the men and show them how to do it. In addition to being a woman, she was also African-American, and what she achieved in the time of Jim Crow, even if it was dwarfed by what she could have achieved, was monumental. 

Thornton was first introduced to music in the same way that many influential blues icons were; via the church. Her father was a Baptist minister and her mother a singer, and Thornton and her siblings made their first foray into music as young children. Tragically, Thornton’s mother died young, so she left school early and got a job in a local tavern. Later, Thornton left home aged just 12 in 1940 and, with the help of legendary gospel performer Diamond Teeth Mary, joined one of the hottest bills in the country; Sammy Green’s ‘Hot Harlem Revue’.

Thornton was tipped to be a star from this point on. After a few early performances cutting her teeth as a hopeful singer, she was hailed as the ‘New Bessie Smith’, which was ironic, as one of Thornton’s idols was ‘Empress of the Blues’ herself. In fact, it was from watching Smith’s performances that she learnt her craft. Thornton, it has to be said, was also massively indebted to Memphis blues heroine Memphis Minnie, who she admired greatly. 

So at this point in our tale, you can see a clear lineage emerging. From her early days in music, Thornton was hailed as the successor to Smith and Minnie, and in many ways, she would take the baton from them and carry on the struggle of women and African-American’s through her music, delivering a raw power that has been unmatched to this day. 

In 1951, Thornton signed a recording contract with Peacock Records, and the following year, she recorded her signature track ‘Hound Dog’ with writing partnership du jour Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The two played to her how they wanted it to be delivered, and deliver it she did. Later, Stoller recalled: “We wanted her to growl it”. Her growl would become one of the most iconic points in all of the blues. 

Of first meeting Thornton, Leiber remembered: “We saw Big Mama, and she knocked me cold. She looked like the biggest, baddest, saltiest chick you would ever see. And she was mean, a ‘lady bear,’ as they used to call ’em. She must have been 350 pounds, and she had all these scars all over her face”.

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The record was a major success. It shipped over half a million units and went to number one on the R&B chart. However, we must remember that for a larger than life black woman in ’50s America, there was a ceiling for success. The track helped to usher in the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, but showing the nature of the day, she saw little of the track’s profits. 

It would be Elvis Presley’s recording of ‘Hound Dog’ that truly popularised the track, and made it a ‘real’ hit, crossing the boundaries between black and white America in what is a genuine injustice of the highest order. Elvis’ rendition, it goes without saying, had none of the zest of the original. Leiber was aggravated by Elvis’ recording and said: “I have no idea what that rabbit business is all about. The song is not about a dog, it’s about a man, a freeloading gigolo”.

Elvis’ watered-down version sold ten million copies and became the definitive rendition, with many not realising that the song was not an original. The tragedy wouldn’t end there, however, as a similar situation would happen again to Thornton in the early ’60. At a time when she recorded her song ‘Ball’ n’ Chain’ for Bay-Tone Records, the label chose not to release the song until 1968 and held onto the copyright which meant that, initially, Thornton was cheated out of all the royalties when Janis Joplin recorded the number. 

In all fairness to Joplin, she frequently cited Thornton as a huge influence, and in a 1972 interview, Thorton admitted that she gave Joplin her blessing to record the song. Finally, by this point, Thornton had started to receive a windfall for her song. Thornton would even open for Joplin, and of the countercultural heroine’s version, she declared: “That girl feels like I do”. 

Another pioneering facet of Thornton’s artistry was that she defied social mores and what was expected of her. She did what she wanted. Some scholars have claimed that Thornton did have the capacity to sing with a “pretty” voice, but never wanted to. This was Big Mama Thornton. She was as real as you could get. “My singing comes from my experience,” she once explained. “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”.

In an extensive 1980 interview with the New York Times, Thornton discussed the influence of “Bessie Smith and all”. She said that they sang from the “heart and expressed themselves” – and this is what she did too. Thornton had her own way of performing, and she wouldn’t change for the world: “I want to be me. I like to put myself into whatever I’m doin’ so I can feel it”.

Big Mama Thornton subverted the role of African-American women during her career. Even physically, she defied what was expected, and it was this, the fact that she was natural transgressive, that made her so captivating. She didn’t care what anybody else said or did; she was true to herself and her own senses. Tragically but somewhat predictably of the time, she never gained the plaudits she deserved. Sadly, Big Mama Thornton would die in relative obscurity aged just 57, due to alcoholism. 

Thornton paved the way for future strong black women such as Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner, and without her boundary-pushing artistry, the aforementioned would not have had the pedestal from which to enthral. She was a battering ram, opening up the last front in the war between the racist past and a more hopeful future. Her career was indicative of the time, and a reflection of America’s dark, racist past but, luckily, now we live in the age of revisionism and through pieces like these, hopefully, one day, Thornton’s massive impact will be more widely acknowledged. 

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