EditorialFor the love of music


For when you’re feeling social


Steve Panacci

June 09, 2021

Big Mama Thornton was an innovator, an important voice to the world of Blues, Gospel, music as a whole and you likely haven’t heard of her before. Like many other Unsung Musicians featured in this series, her contributions to the music industry remain true and have made an impact to this day. Her nickname ‘Big Mama Thornton’ was coined by Frank Schiffman, the manager of the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York. Her deep powerful voice and a strong sense of self and personality made sure she lived up to the name.


She was born Willie Mae Thornton on December 11, 1926, in Ariton, Alabama. Her father was a Baptist minister and her mother, who passed away when she was 14, was a singer in the church. After her mother passed, she left home to pursue a career in the entertainment field. She played in some local bands, including and most notably the one she found her stride in, Hot Harlem Revue. She acted as the singer, drummer, and harmonica player, spending seven years as a regular performer throughout the South. Even having no formal training as a musician, she had a knack for the drums and the harmonica and became synonymous with them.


In 1948 she moved to Houston to begin a recording career, first joining Peacock Records. While a part of the label she befriended Johnny Otis, who was eminent during this era. Willie would join Johnny’s tour that would go through the eastern and southern United States. Peacock Records was owned by Don Robey, who was the most prominent Black man on the business side of R&B. At the time, he also owned Ace Records and would eventually own Duke Records. Though he was lauded by some of the musicians on his roster, he wasn’t the most ethical businessman, often resorting to criminal means including violence and intimidation as part of his business model. He would also give himself songwriting credits for songs that were recorded on his labels, under the moniker Deadric Malone, thus collecting royalties unfairly.


When Thornton was getting her feet wet under the label, Don was adamant that she needed a hit, and quickly. He tasked Johnny Otis with assisting in that endeavor. Johnny asked composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to write a song, specifically for Thornton. They came back with a song called “Hound Dog.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? What’s a little-known fact is that Big Mama Thornton was actually the first artist to record it, and it launched her to superstardom after sitting at No.1 on the R&B charts for seven weeks and selling over two million copies nationwide. Both Lieber and Stoller were present at the recording. During the session, Leiber demonstrated the vocal style they had envisioned. “We wanted her to growl it,” Stoller said, which she did.



So I started to sing the words and join in some of my own. All that talkin’ and hollerin’–that’s my own” she would cite in an interview. Three years later, the song became an even bigger hit after Elvis Presley recorded it. While the song was similar to the original for the most part, the lyrics weren’t the same.

Most notably, for example, Big Mama Thornton’s chorus sang:


You ain’t nothing but a hound dog

Been snoopin’ ’round the door

You ain’t nothing but a hound dog

Been snoopin’ ’round my door

You can wag your tail

But I ain’t gonna feed you no more

Elvis’ version, as we all know, sang:

You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog

Cryin’ all the time

You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog

Cryin’ all the time

Well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit

And you ain’t no friend of mine


Thornton always felt that she was cheated out of the success she deserved from the song. “I never got what I should have,” she was quoted saying. “I got one check for $500 and I never seen another.” While the song helped launch her career, it pales in comparison to the success of Elvis’ cover. In addition, both Lieber and Stoller questioned the cover. “To this day, I have no idea what that rabbit business is all about. The song is not about a dog; it’s about a man, a freeloading gigolo. Elvis’ version makes no sense to me, and more interestingly, it is not the song that Mike and I wrote,” Lieber would say of the song in their 2010 book, Hound Dog. “My problem with ‘Hound Dog’ was that I couldn’t get Big Mama’s version out of my head. And I agree with Jerry, the lyric change was annoying,” Stoller would write.


Thornton would continue to record and play live shows across the country for the next few years. She traveled with Junior Parker and Johnny Ace throughout the 50s, eventually returning to California by the end of the decade. Blues music’s popularity was declining around this time which made her music less desirable in the mainstream, though she would continue to perform as the 1960s began and as the decade progressed, Blues music was making a resurgence and being embraced by white audiences due to the success of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and The Rolling Stones. Consequently, Thornton’s popularity was on the rise again. In the late 1960s, she recorded “Ball and Chain,” which caught the ear of Janis Joplin, who often cited Thornton as a musical influence. The song would become a staple during her live performances as well.



As the 1960s were ending, Thornton was able to fulfill a lifelong dream of hers, recording a Gospel album, called Saved. The album includes the gospel classics “Oh, Happy Day,” “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “Lord Save Me,” and “Go Down Moses”.


At this point, the American Blues resurgence was winding down. Over time, Blues had merged with other genres and while opportunities became fewer and far between, she was asked to rejoin the American Folk Blues Festival tour. On that tour were several popular Blues musicians of that era such as Eddie Boyd, Big Joe Williams, Robert Pete Williams, T- Bone Walker, Paul Lenart, Hartley Severns, Edward Taylor, and Vinton Johnson. She returned home after the tour ended.


She died in Los Angeles on July 25, 1984, from heart attack complications, specifically due to heart and liver disorders due to her longstanding alcohol abuse. She was 57.


Thornton’s legacy is exceptional, despite being an ‘unsung musician’. Not only was her musical and vocal style unrivaled at the time, but both “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain” catapulted into the mainstream at lightning speed. “Hound Dog” would go on to be included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll“, and Thornton was fittingly inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984.


Her lack of recognition may be the result, and wrongly, of racial segregation in the US at the time, and several music critics would argue this point in the decades following her death. “Hound Dog” wouldn’t be associated with Elvis Presley and “Ball and Chain” wouldn’t just be attached to Janis Joplin. When we listen to Marcus King, Stevie Ray Vaughn or Van Morrison, we would instantly internally credit a lot of those artists that preceded them in that genre.’


Her influence on the music industry stands on its own. Rightfully so.