Thornton, Big Mama [Willie Mae ]
- Maureen Mahon
[Willie Mae ]
(b Ariton, AL, Dec 11, 1926; d Los Angeles, CA, July 25, 1984). American blues singer, songwriter, harmonica player, and drummer. When she was 14 years old, Thornton left home to join Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Review, a traveling variety show that toured the south. She developed an act that incorporated comedy and singing, carrying on the sound and attitude of classic blues women such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Thornton left the troupe in 1947 and settled in Houston, Texas, where Don Robey, owner of Peacock Records, signed her in 1951. While touring with Johnny Otis in the early 1950s, Thornton got her nickname after her performance at Harlem’s Apollo Theater brought down the house. Commenting on Thornton’s physical size and vocal power, venue manager Frank Schiffman called her “Big Mama.”
“Hound Dog” (1953) was Thornton’s third single for Peacock and her first and only hit. Written for Thornton by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller at the suggestion of Otis, “Hound Dog” featured Thornton’s commanding blues shout, notable for its confident growl and saucy attitude, against spare guitar and drum instrumentation and a rumba rhythm. Thornton’s version stayed on the rhythm and blues charts for 14 weeks, seven in the number one position. “Hound Dog” was covered numerous times, most famously by Elvis Presley in ...