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Big Mama Thornton

Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton only notched one national hit in her lifetime, but it was a true monster. "Hound Dog" held down the top slot on Billboard's R&B charts for seven long weeks in 1953. Alas, Elvis Presley's rocking 1956 cover was even bigger, effectively obscuring Thornton's chief claim to immortality.

That's a damned shame, because Thornton's menacing growl was indeed something special. The hefty belter first opened her pipes in church but soon embraced the blues. She toured with Sammy Green's Hot Harlem Revue during the 1940s. Thornton was ensconced on the Houston circuit when Peacock Records boss Don Robey signed her in 1951. She debuted on Peacock with "Partnership Blues" that year, backed by trumpeter Joe Scott's band.

But it was her third Peacock date with Johnny Otis' band that proved the winner. With Pete Lewis laying down some truly nasty guitar behind her, Big Mama shouted "Hound Dog," a tune whose authorship remains a bone of contention to this day (both Otis and the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller claim responsibility), and soon hit the road a star.

But it was an isolated incident. Though Thornton cut some fine Peacock follow-ups -- "I Smell a Rat," "Stop Hoppin' on Me," "The Fish," "Just like a Dog" -- through 1957, she never again reached the hit parade. Even Elvis was apparently unaware of her; he was handed "Hound Dog" by Freddie Bell, a Vegas lounge rocker. Early-'60s 45s for Irma, Bay-Tone, Kent, and Sotoplay did little to revive her sagging fortunes, but a series of dates for Arhoolie that included her first vinyl rendition of "Ball and Chain" in 1968 and two albums for Mercury in 1969-1970 put her back in circulation (Janis Joplin's overwrought but well-intentioned cover of "Ball and Chain" didn't hurt either). Along with her imposing vocals, Thornton began to emphasize her harmonica skills during the 1960s.

Thornton was a tough cookie. She dressed like a man and took no guff from anyone, even as the pounds fell off her once-ample frame and she became downright scrawny during the last years of her life. Medical personnel found her lifeless body in an L.A. rooming house in 1984. ~ Bill Dahl
full bio

Selected Discography

x

Track List: Vanguard Visionaries

1. Hound Dog

2. Ball And Chain

3. Sassy Mama

4. Little Red Rooster

5. Rock Me Baby

6. Big Mama Swings

7. Rolling Stone

9. Gonna Leave You

10. Big Mama's New Love

x

Track List: They Called Me Big Mama

1. All Right Baby

2. Bad Luck Got My Man

6. Cotton Picking Blues

8. No Jody For Me

9. Let Your Tears Fall Baby

10. They Call Me Big Mama

11. Walking Blues

12. Hound Dog

14. Nightmare

15. Rock-A-Bye Baby

16. Hard Times

18. I Ain't No Fool Either

19. The Big Change

20. I Smell A Rat

22. Willie Mae's Blues

23. Stop Hoppin' On Me

x

Track List: With The Muddy Waters Blues Band 1966

1. I'm Feeling Alright

2. Sometimes I Have A Heartache

3. Black Rat (Take 4)

4. Life Goes On

5. Everything Gonna Be Alright

6. Big Mama's Bumble Bee Blues

7. Gimme A Penny (Take 6)

8. Looking The World Over

9. I Feel The Way I Feel

10. Guide Me Home

11. Black Rat (Take 2)

12. Wrapped Tight

13. Gimme A Penny (Take 5)

14. Big Mama's Shuffle

15. Since I Fell For You

16. I'm Feeling Alright (Fast Version)

17. Big Mama's Blues (My Love)

x

Track List: Big Mama Swings

Disc 1

1. Little Red Rooster

2. Ball And Chain

3. Jail

4. Hound Dog

5. Rock Me Baby

7. Oh Happy Day

Disc 2

1. Rolling Stone

2. Lost City

3. Mr. Cool

4. Big Mama's New Love

5. Private Number

6. Sassy Mama

7. Everybody's Happy (But Me)

Disc 3

2. Gonna Leave You

3. Mixed Up Feeling

4. Special

5. Going Fishing

6. Big Mama Swings

7. Happy Me

x

Track List: Hound Dog: The Peacock Recordings

1. Hound Dog

2. My Man Called Me

3. I Smell A Rat

4. They Call Me Big Mama

5. You Don't Move Me No More

6. Let Your Tears Fall Baby

7. Rock-A-Bye Baby

8. Yes Baby

9. How Come

10. Nightmare

11. Stop A-Hoppin' On Me

12. Just Like A Dog, Barking Up The Wrong Tree

13. Walking Blues

14. The Big Change

15. Hard Times

16. Laugh, Laugh, Laugh

17. The Fish

18. I've Searched The Whole World Over

x

Track List: The Original Hound Dog

1. Hound Dog

2. Walking Blues

3. My Man Called Me

4. Cotton Picking Blues

6. The Big Change

7. I Smell A Rat

8. I Just Can't Help Myself

9. They Call Me Big Mama

10. Hard Times

11. I Ain't No Fool Either

12. You Don't Move Me No More

13. Let Your Tears Fall Baby

14. I've Searched The Whole World Over

15. Rock-A-Bye Baby

16. How Come

17. Nightmare

18. Stop A-Hoppin' On Me

19. Laugh, Laugh, Laugh

21. The Fish

x

Track List: Sassy Mama

1. Rolling Stone

2. Lost City

3. Mr. Cool

4. Big Mama's New Love

5. Private Number

6. Sassy Mama

7. Everybody's Happy (But Me)

x

Track List: Jail

1. Little Red Rooster

2. Ball 'n' Chain

3. Jail

4. Hound Dog

5. Rock Me Baby

7. Oh Happy Day

Comments

Report as inappropriate
Go Big Mamma!!! Sorry for your loss (mssmys) below
vvvvvvvvvv
Report as inappropriate
What a stupid bio for her. She was a great musician but she was also a black woman in a segregated society. Overlooked, abused and ignored. And replaced by no talent that went on to become a celebrated.. . w h a t e v e r . It just burns me up.
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GREATEST BLUE VOICE
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what a damn shame to be found in a rooming house, probably without a penny to her name. She was too good for that kind of end. What a star!
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Tooooooooo Goooooood... . l o v e her voice.
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An ORIGINAL! Love her voice, thanks for allowing me to hear this singer and song
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woww! she's badazzz! love it!!
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One of the high points in my life was hearing her doing,You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog in 1975.
A rare gem hidden by the cheap tinsel of the music industry.
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I had no idea, but very please to learn this information. I love her voice and the style!
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alohakghi
Thank goodness for the European recording studios of that era, Big Mama has been well preserved. The south was still reeling from the Civil war and musicians, in general, did not have access to decent equipment. The poor quality of the masters doesn't translate well into digital. It is a great historical loss and speaks to the regrettable outcomes of war.
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Best female voice in history by far!! Gives you chills just to hear her sing those notes!!
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yessir
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nice
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lkimmelman1
To borrow a quote from Public Enemy's FIGHT THE POWER, Elvis was a hero to most But he never meant s**t to me... and Big Mama's version of HOUND DOG blows his version to smithereens.
Report as inappropriate
The real diva here! She originated Hound Dog!! Momma said she was so soulful and such a down to earth woman.
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-:-)-glad to hear you Big Mama,! :-) You are fantastic,#
Report as inappropriate
oh how i love her voice, one of our Houston all-time blues greats! what a woman.
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One of the unsung greats.
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love you big mama you will be missed but your music will live on in all of us God bless you
Report as inappropriate
Love Big Mama!
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Love the blues
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awesome
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perfection, wow!
Report as inappropriate
Buddy Guy in the prime of youth playing some ferocious guitar on School Boy. Her voice and this band was just too much.
Report as inappropriate
teedub95464
Saw Big Mama a month or so before she died at the Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley. Freaked me out in a good way. She looked like my grandfather. Had a drunk thrown out of the venue. Even though she was on a walker, she had us mesmerized.
Report as inappropriate
The female voice is the most powerful force. The sirens still sing and seduce
Report as inappropriate
You growl Mama!
dlc
Report as inappropriate
jenthornton7 2
Elvis couldn't EVENNN compare to MAMA!!! Or any of the super blues artists Hope she's getting her RESPECT now. Lv u from another Thornton "mama"!!!
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richardocunn i n g h a m 6 0
O so powerful.
Report as inappropriate
Go Big Mama, go! Love her Hound Dog. (Screw you Elvis.)
Report as inappropriate
RIGHT ON! BIG MAMA SHE'S THE BEST OF THEM ALL
Report as inappropriate
A true classic!
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mikecrachiol o
john lee hooker and others have a harmonica jam with big mama
Report as inappropriate
can't get more down !
Report as inappropriate
awesome. and hi, lydia!!
Report as inappropriate
sister can play the Harp.
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I can understand why janis joplin respected this woman. Big mama can really belt them blues out. She is awesome.
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fancifr
Incredible vocal, what a shame she didn't receive the recognition she deserved!
Report as inappropriate
So beautiful... s o said an end.
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johnnie_48
mmm,mmm,mmm so soulful!
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twodogsap
hound dog big mama had the great hit #1 always!
Report as inappropriate
awsome!. reminds me of mahila....
Report as inappropriate
Truly a pioneer soul diva blueswomen.
Report as inappropriate
what about ball n chain? what a great song! i thought for sure that'd be on her top song list... janis joplin covered it.. lovely
Report as inappropriate
One of the great ladies of blues.
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Had not heard her B 4. Woohoo!
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OOOOOHHHHHHH H H H H W E E E E E E E E E E E ! ! ! ! ! ! !
Report as inappropriate
There's no question, Big Mama's "Hound Dog" whupped Elvis's version up one side and down the other. It's too bad she didn't get the recognition she so well deserved, because she could turn the mike red hot and melt the master disc every time she walked into the studio, and that's a rare gift.
Report as inappropriate
Willie Mae all I can say is my...my...my . . . m y . . . w h a t a woman what a voice!!!
Report as inappropriate
can't get enough of her...wish she would sing me to sleep every night with her sultry blues and wake me up every morning with her bellowing energy.
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