Big Mama Thornton

Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton was born December 11, 1926 on the rural outskirts of Montgomery, Alabama. She was one of six siblings. Her father was a minister and her mother sang in the church choir. Willie Mae grew up singing in church and learned drums and harmonica, perhaps from a brother who was an outstanding player, later known as "Harp" Thornton.

Thornton left Montgomery at age 14 in 1941, following her mother's death. She joined Sammy Green's Georgia-based Hot Harlem Revue. Her seven-year tenure with them gave her valuable singing and stage experience, and enabled her to tour the South. In 1948, she settled in Houston, Texas, where she hoped to further her career as a singer. She was also a self-taught drummer and harmonica player, and frequently played each instrument onstage.
Thornton began her recording career in Houston, signing a recording contract with Peacock Records in 1951. While working with another Peacock artist, Johnny Otis, she recorded "Hound Dog", a song that composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had given her in Los Angeles. The record was produced by Johnny Otis, and went to number one on the R&B chart. Although the record made her a star, she saw little of the profits. She continued to record for Peacock until 1957 and performed with R&B package tours with Junior Parker and Esther Phillips. In 1954, Thornton was one of the eyewitnesses to the accidental self-inflicted handgun death of blues singer Johnny Ace.

Rhythm & blues were soon eclipsed by the growth of rock & roll, and Thornton's career slowed in the mid-1950s, although she was only in her thirties. Her agreements with both Robey and Otis expired, and in the late 1950s, she moved to San Francisco to perform with her old friend Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, a former Duke-Peacock artist. She had no contract or regular band and endured a number of difficult years. Fortunately, traditional blues were revived by the mid-1960s through the enthusiastic interest of artists such as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones, and the Bay Area became a center of blues activity. Although she still did not have regular support, Thornton always was invited to the Monterey Jazz Festival and in 1965 toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival, an unusual honor for a female artist.

In 1966, Thornton recorded Big Mama Thornton With The Muddy Waters Blues Band, with Muddy Waters (guitar), Sammy Lawhorn (guitar), James Cotton (harmonica), Otis Spann (piano), Luther Johnson (bass guitar), and Francis Clay (drums). Songs included "Everything Gonna Be Alright", "Big Mama's Blues", "I'm Feeling Alright", "Big Mama's Bumble Bee Blues", "Looking The World Over", "Big Mama's Shuffle", and "Since I Fell For You", amongst others.

Her Ball 'n' Chain album in 1968, recorded 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. It captured her performances during a couple of mid 1970s concerts at two northwestern prisons. She became the talented leader of a blues ensemble that featured sustained jams from George "Harmonica" Smith, as well as guitarists Doug Macleod, B. Huston and Steve Wachsman, drummer Todd Nelson, saxophonist Bill Potter, bassist Bruce Sieverson, and pianist J.D. Nicholson.

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. While in England that year, she recorded 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.

During her career, she appeared on stages from New York City's Apollo Theater in 1952 to the Newport Jazz Festival in 1980, and was nominated for the Blues Music Awards six times. In addition to "Ball 'n' Chain" and "They Call Me Big Mama," Thornton wrote twenty other blues songs.

In the 1970s years of heavy drinking began to hurt Ms. Thornton's health. She was in a serious auto accident and recovered to perform at the 1983 Newport Jazz Festival with Muddy Waters, B. B. King, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, a recording of which is called The Blues—A Real Summit Meeting on Buddha Records. Ms. Thornton died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on July 25, 1984, at age 57. The funeral was led by her old friend, now Reverend Johnny Otis, and many artists paid tribute. She was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. That same year, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.

Album Collection

The Great Female Blues Singers
Blues Women Anthology

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