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Happy Birthday, Big Mama Thorton!

Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton (December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984) was an American rhythm and blues singer and songwriter. In 1952, Thorton was the first artist to record the song "Hound Dog," which then stayed on the Billboard R&B charts for seven weeks in the following year. The B-side was "They Call Me Big Mama." Three years later, Elvis Presley recorded his version of the song. Thorton was also the artist who wrote and recorded "Ball 'n' Chain", which Janis Joplin made popular in 1967.

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Willie Mae Thorton was was born in Alabama into a Baptist family. Her father was a minister and her mother was a church singer. The young Thorton and her six siblings began singing in the church as children. Thorton also taught herself how to play the drums and the harmonica, and included both in her stage performances.

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Despite its sale of two million copies, Thornton received only $500 for her rendition of "Hound Dog." In contrast, Elvis Presley's later version, refined for mainstream audiences (Thorton's included sexual references and exuberant whoops and barks), brought him both fame and considerable financial reward, highlighting the stark racial inequality that influenced so much of music, including the artists' exposure and revenue, during the 1950s and 60s.

 

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In 1966, Thorton recorded "Big Mama Thorton with The Muddy Waters Blue Band," with Muddy Waters on guitar. The album included "Everything Gonna Be Alright", "Big Mama's Blues", "I'm Feeling Alright", "Big Mama's Bumble Bee Blues", "Looking The World Over", and "Since I Fell For You", among others.

In 1968 Thornton appeared at the Sky River Rock Festival with a lineup that included the Grateful Dead, James Cotton, and Santana. In 1983, after a serious auto accident, she rallied to perform  at the Newport Jazz Festival with Muddy Waters, B. B. King, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, resulting in a live recording, "The Blues—A Real Summit Meeting."

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Big Mama Thorton and T-Bone (above).

During her career, Big Mama Thorton appeared on stages and jazz festivals all over the world. Notable performances included shows at the Apollo Theater in New York City, the San Francisco Blues Festival, the Monteray Jazz Festival, and the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe. One of Thornton's last albums was Jail (1975) for Vanguard Records. It captured her performances during a couple of mid 1970s concerts at two northwestern prisons. In 1984, the year of her death, Big Mama Thorton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

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Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Thursday, 11 December 2014
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