Willie Mae Thornton was born on December 11, 1926 in Montgomery, Alabama. Her singing name was Big Mama Thornton (“Big Mama” for short) due to her grand size and robust voice.
Big Mama was a blues singer. Her most famous song is Hound Dog (1952), a song later covered by the late Elvis Presley. Ball & Chain also belonged to her (and received fame); it was later made famous by the late rock legend Janis Joplin, who held great admiration for Thornton. Thornton had more than 20 blues songs under her belt before she died.
Thornton’s father was a minister and her mother sang in the church choir. Big Mama grew up singing in the church. One of her six siblings, a brother, also made music. His name was “Harp” Thornton. While Big Mama was working in a local saloon as a cleaner after her mother died when she was just 14 years old, she substituted for a singer. She was noticed by Atlanta music promoter Sammy Green.
For seven years (1941 – 1948) Big Mama sang in Green’s show The Hot Harlem Revue, and was billed as the “New Bessie Smith.” After leaving the Revue, Thornton traveled to Houston, Texas, where she worked with bandleader Johnny Otis and black entrepreneur Don Robey. Robey had been impressed with Thornton’s ability to play a slew of instruments, which was unheard of at that time with regard to female singers. That is when Thornton was signed to a five-year contract with Peacock Record Label. (Other artists of that label are Marie Adams, Johnny Ace, and Little Richard.)
In 1953, Thornton’s famous “Hound Dog” topped the R&B charts, and despite sales of two million copies, Thornton received just $500. With the rise of rock & roll, by the mid 1950’s Big Mama’s career had begun to slow. She was in her 30’s at this time and her contracts with both Otis and Robey expired. It has been said that this period was the most difficult for Thornton.
In the mid 60’s there was a revival of traditional blues, and Thornton played often at the Monterey Jazz Festival. In 1965, she toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival, which was an unusual honor since few female musicians toured. Big Mama Thornton stayed busy with her music in the late 1960’s. She enjoyed collaborating and performing with Buddy Guy, Walter Horton, Muddy Waters, Sam “Lightnin” Hopkins, Otis Spawn, and others.
Thornton both recorded and performed during the 1970’s; however, she had been a heavy drinker and it took a toll on her health. Big Mama Thornton died on July 25, 1984 in Los Angeles from a heart attack. She was 57 years old. She is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. Later that year, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of fame. Thornton was a lesbian, and did not hide her orientation, even at the onset of her career.