Written by Cynthia J. Beeman
Read by Amy Cook
Nicknamed “Big Mama” for both her size and her dynamic voice, blues legend Willie Mae Thornton grew up singing in the choir in her father’s church near Montgomery, Alabama. She won a singing contest in 1941at age 15 and attracted the attention of Atlanta music promoter Sammy Green, who signed her for his Hot Harlem Review. After touring with the show for seven years, she moved to Houston in 1948, and is credited with contributing to the unique Texas Blues style. She worked with producers Johnny Otis and Don Robey, and recorded on Robey’s Peacock Records label. Two of her successful early recordings, “Hound Dog,” and “Ball and Chain,” which she wrote, became huge hits for Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin in later years.
Thornton spent most of the 1950s touring African American clubs and concert halls throughout the southern and eastern U.S., and played such storied venues as New York City’s Cotton Club and Apollo Theater. One writer described her style as “rough and beautiful and crazy.” She relocated to the San Francisco Bay area in the early 1960s, was a frequent performer at the Monterey Jazz festivals, and continued her successful recording career with several different labels. Big Mama Thornton, by then a major influence on a new generation of blues and rock & roll musicians, died of a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 57.
Dreisbach, Tina Spencer. Hiram College, Encyclopedia of Alabama
Haworth, Alan Lee. "Thornton, Willie Mae [Big Mama]," Handbook of Texas Online. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Audio Source Information
Our project, "Texas Women's History Moments," received the 2012 National Council on Public History Outstanding Public History Award and the American Association for State and Local History Leadership in History Award. The audio clips were broadcast on KUT radio from 2011-2016 during Women’s History Month.