Big Mama Thornton Self Taught Blues Singer
She was a stately woman on stage, singing blues and soul with her powerful voice, her appearance and her smile. We have seen her play harmonica, drums and guitar every now and then. But most of the time her band started playing while she was still backstage, by the time the verse was about to start she arrived singing “You ain’t nothing but a Hound Dog”.
Queen of the Blues
We earlier wrote blogs about Koko Taylor and Etta James, Big Mama Thornton a third Queen of the Blues is a woman everybody should listen to. Willie Mae Thornton was a self taught musician since she started working and singing in a saloon at age fourteen. She learned to sing by just doing it and learned the play drums by watching other people. She couldn´t read sheet music but she knows how to sing the blues about the broken heart “white or black. rich or poor. if you ever had your heart broken you have right to sing the blues”, she once said.
Mama Thornton as a local Singer
She rolled in the music business when she got the attention of music promoter Sammy Green of Atlanta. Big Mama was singing in a local saloon in Montgomery Alabama, when Green walked in. It was a coincidence Green spotted Thornton that night because she had to substitute for the regular singer. After Green and Thornton met he engaged her in his show Hot Harlem Revue. (Notable Black American Women, p. 641) Later on she would become part of Johnny Ace, Johnny Otis and BB Kings band.
Blues songs with soul and harmony
She sings about loneliness, abandonment, herself and love: In ´They Call Me Big Mama´ she sings, like Howlin´ Wolf once did in ´Heavily Joy´ , about the 300 pounds she weigh. In other songs like ´My Man Called Me´, ‘Walking Blues’, ‘Gonna Leave You’, ‘Rock Me Baby’, she shows how to perform some of the greatest blues classics.
Big Mama Thornton Hits
She witnessed Johnny Ace shoot himself in the dressing room at the City Auditorium in Houston while he was playing with a .22 Caliber. Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin covered her songs Hound Dog and Ball ´n´ Chain which all became hits.
Whiskey and Corn Moonshine
Big Mama Thornton drank Whiskey and Corn Moonshine, by 1979 it took its toll when she was diagnosed cirrhosis of the liver. The last years of her live she had a career in the west coast bay area alongside Big Joe Turner another blues veteran. They performed in clubs and played at the Newport Jazz festival, and San Fransisco Blues Festival.
Willie Mae Thornton had the live of an artist full of adventure hard work and show business, while she never really got the credits she deserved she is known for her excellent blues songs. She gave Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin a hit song and played with the greatest musicians around. She was tall, heavyset, but above all one of the best female blues singer around.
Listen More Big Mama Thornton