Born in Montgomery, Alabama, on 11 December 1926, Willie Mae Thornton’s father was a minister, and as a young girl, she and her six brothers and sisters frequently sang in his church.
While still very young, she learned to play harmonica and drums, and by the age of 14 – following the death of her mother – she had left home to make her way in music.
She travelled and sang throughout the South and when Sam Green’s Hot Harlem Revue came to town in 1941, 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 left the Revue in Texas and settled in Houston, playing with Louis Jordan’s band, Bobby Bland, Ray Charles and Little Junior Parker, among others.
She was discovered while singing at Houston’s Eldorado Ballroom by a black entrepreneur and reputed gambler named Don Robey, at that time the owner of several Houston businesses including a local record shop, a club called The Bronze Peacock, the Buffalo Booking Agency, a publishing company and the Peacock record label.
Robey signed her to a deal with Peacock in 1951. He was evidently impressed by her seasoned live performance; she was one of the rare women singers of that era who was also a capable multi-instrumentalist, and her size was already impressive enough (six feet tall and 300 pounds) to give her the nickname she wore for the rest of her life.
She carried forward the ‘tough blues mama’ musical tradition established years earlier by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie, and was a forceful, hearty blues shouter of tremendous power and control.
Robey felt that her exciting stage performance would translate well onto records, and he spent the next five years trying, with some success, different ways to market her sound.
In 1952 she joined Johnny Otis’ Rhythm and Blues Caravan and played in the North for the first time, touring almost continuously.
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.