Born in Montgomery, Alabama, on 11 December 1926, Willie Mae Thornton supported herself from age 14, when her mother died.
When Sam Green’s Hot Harlem Revue came to town in 1941, Willie Mae heard that Green was looking for talent. She could play the harmonica and sing songs she had “picked up off the jukebox,” so Green hired her. She spent the next seven years on the road with the revue, singing and dancing in clubs all through the South.
In 1948 she settled in Houston and played with Louis Jordan’s band, Bobby Bland,Ray Charles and Little Junior Parker, among others. She made her first recordings on the Houston-based Duke and Peacock labels, and also took up drums.
In 1952 she joined Johnny Otis’ Rhythm and Blues Caravan and played in the North for the first time. The following year she had her own #1 R&B hit with Hound Dog , recorded with the Otis band in Los Angeles. Elvis Presley‘s version (which was a #1 pop single in 1956) was directly influenced by Thornton’s 1953 recording of the song.
Thornton moved to California in 1956 and was living in San Francisco when the Sixties blues revival brought her to the attention of young white singers like Janis Joplin. Thereafter, Big Mama was on the bill at most of the major jazz and blues festivals, both in the US and overseas.
Ball and Chain , which was written by Thornton, was recorded by Janis Joplin in 1968. But Big Mama herself never profited: “Didn’t get no money from them at all,” she once commented. “Everybody livin’ in a house but me. I’m just livin’.”
Big Mama Thornton died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on 25 July 1984. She was 57-years-old and died alone and broke in a boarding house.