Big Mama Thornton

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Big Mama Thornton
Birth name Willie Mae Thornton
Born December 11, 1926(1926-12-11)
Montgomery, Alabama
Origin Ariton, Alabama, United States
Died July 25, 1984(1984-07-25) (aged 57)
Genres Rhythm and blues, Texas blues
Occupations Singer, songwriter
Instruments drums, harmonica
Years active 1947–1984
Labels Peacock, Arhoolie, Mercury, Pentagram, Backbeat, Vanguard, Ace Records (UK)
Associated acts Muddy Waters Blues Band, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker

Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton (*12 November 1926 in Montgomery, Alabama, † 25 July 1984 in Los Angeles, California) was an American blues singer, harp player and songwriter. She was the first who recorded "Hound Dog" by Leiber and Stoller. Another of her big hits which were often covered is "Ball ´n Chain".

Career[change | edit source]

She was born in Montgomery, Alabama. She got her musical education in a Baptist church, where her father was a minister and her mother a choir singer. At the age of 14 she joined Sammy Green's Georgia-based Hot Harlem Revue and toured the south. She was also a self-taught drummer and harmonica player. She often played each instrument onstage.

1948 she settled in Houston. In 1951 she was signing a recording contract with Peacock Records. For this label she recorded "Hound Dog" which became #1 in the Rhythm ´n Blues charts. Then she toured with Junior Parker and Esther Phillips. At the end of the 1950s her career faded. She relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she mostly played local blues clubs.

In 1966 she recorded Big Mama Thornton With The Muddy Waters Blues Band featuring Muddy Waters (guitar), Sammy Lawhorn (guitar), James Cotton(harmonica), Otis Spann (piano), Luther Johnson (bass guitar), and Francis Clay (drums). Her Ball 'n' Chain album in 1968 with Lightnin' Hopkins (guitar) and Larry Williams (vocals), included the songs "Hound Dog", "Wade in the Water", "Little Red Rooster", "Ball 'n' Chain", "Money Taker", and "Prison Blues".

One of Thornton's last albums was Jail (1975) for Vanguard Records.The album was recorded in the mid-1970s at two prisons. She became the leader of a blues ensemble .Thornton performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 and 1968, and at the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1979. In 1965 she performed with the American Folk Blues Festival package in Europe where she recorded her album Big Mama Thornton in Europe and followed it up the next year in San Francisco with Big Mama Thornton with the Chicago Blues Band. Both albums came out on the Arhoolie label. Thornton continued to record for Vanguard, Mercury, and other small labels in the 1970s and to work the blues festival circuit until her death in 1984. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984.

Thornton died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on 25 July 1984 at the age of 57.

Selected discography[change | edit source]

  • 1965 Big Mama Thornton in Europe Arhoolie
  • 1967 Big Mama the Queen at Monterey MCA
  • 1968 She's Back
  • 1969 Stronger Than Dirt
  • 1970 Maybe Roulette Records
  • 1970 The Way It Is Mercury
  • 1973 Saved Pentagram Records
  • 1975 Jail Vanguard
  • 1975 Sassy Mama!
  • 1978 Mama's Pride Vanguard[1]

Other websites[change | edit source]

References[change | edit source]