Posted by themusicsover on July 25, 2010
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984
Big Mama Thornton gave the world two of the greatest songs in rock history, “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain.” And they would become signature songs for two of America’s biggest rock icons. Just starting out in the early ’50s, Thornton, along with producer Johnny Otis, worked up a hard electric blues version of “Hound Dog” which was given to her by the songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller. Her’s being the first recording of the song, she sat at the top of the R&B charts for seven weeks. Elvis Presley rocked the song up a bit three years later, sending his career into the stratosphere. Unfortunately, Thornton’s career didn’t take the same path. She worked consistently throughout the ’50s and ’60s, but was never able to duplicate the success of “Hound Dog.” And while her career was on an upswing in late ’60s, she wrote and recorded “Ball and Chain” for Arhoolie Records. The song found its way to the great Janis Joplin who added her own sass to it on stage at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, a watershed moment in her career. Sadly though, Thornton was again unable to capitalize on the success. As the year’s progressed so did Thornton’s abuse of alcohol. By the early ’80s, the once “Big Mama” was but a shadow of herself, weighing less than 100 pounds. She died of heart and liver problems on July 25, 1984.