Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton grew up a preacher's daughter in Alabama, where she was born in 1926 and learned to sing in her church choir. But she sure didn't stay on the holy side of things very long, leaving home in her early teens after her mother's death to follow her true calling as a rowdy, gun-toting, gin-swilling blues singer, the late-1940s heir to hard-living blueswomen like Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie. Thornton was a drummer and (as you'll see below) an excellent harmonica player, but what really set her apart was her big, booming voice, which was attached to a big, booming personality and a big, booming 350-pound frame.
She got along in a rough and sometimes violent man's world by being as tough as one of the boys, even preferring to dress in men's clothing. Living that life brought on its share of tragedies: She supposedly had a son taken away from her by the authorities, and also watched in horror as her friend and fellow performer Johnny Ace accidentally shot himself in the head in their dressing room.
She was famously screwed over by the music industry a couple of times during her career. She was only paid $500 for her biggest hit, 1953's "Hound Dog," and also claimed that songwriting credit had been stolen from her by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. (Though other stories say Lieber and Stoller wrote the song in such a rush that the only paper available to write it down on was a brown paper bag, which Thornton then used as her sheet music.) She deeply resented it when the song became one of Elvis Presley's early smashes, almost totally eclipsing her version. I'm not going to say I don't like the Elvis version, but the song really does make more sense when Thornton sings it—not only because it's about a woman giving a much-needed smackdown to her good-for-nothing boyfriend, but because it fit Thornton's big, belligerent persona so well. Here she is performing "Hound Dog" with guitarist Buddy Guy:
These clips don't often have a lot of documentation saying where they come from, but I'm pretty sure that both the above video and this next one can be found on the DVD set The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966, and were recorded in 1965 for German TV while Thornton and other U.S. blues musicians were touring with the American Folk Blues Festival. This is "Down Home Shakedown," teaming Thornton with John Lee Hooker, Shakey Horton, J.B. Lenoir, and Doc Ross. (I've also got a Hooker song from this set lined up for a future installment.)
Her 1961 song "Ball And Chain," which she at least got songwriting credit for, was a hit for Janis Joplin in the late 1960s, but Thornton didn't get any money then either. Instead of royalties, Thornton apparently just strolled in to her record company every once in a while and yelled until someone paid her. This story from hip-hop gossip website The Panache Report about how Big Mama Thornton got paid is almost too good to be believed, especially considering how many times the word "allegedly" comes up, but still, it's a hell of a story: White male music executives were terrified of Thornton and she was known to allegedly carry a pistol in her handbag with a pint of booze. Big Mama wasn't on a royalty schedule like other artists. When she needed money, allegedly, she was known to strut in the record company and demand, "Motherf**kers, where is my money?" Personnel would scramble and get Big Mama her royalty check, they didn't like to keep her waiting. … Once, when Big Mama suspected a white executive of cheating her (he was new and not aware of her temper) she took her purse and swung it from left to right, upside his head. He pleaded for her to stop. She stopped when accounting rushed in and gave her a check. Other executives pleaded with her to calm down. (Nathan Rabin does something similar whenever payday comes around at the A.V. Club, though he prefers a broken whiskey bottle to a pistol, howling "I'LL GIVE YOU A YEAR OF FLOPS IF DON'T GET MY MONEY" at the top of his lungs. Everyone's too frightened to ask him what that means.) If that story's not total hyperbole, I wonder if her behavior was just what was necessary in order to get any money from her label at all. Her friend Chris Strachwitz, who recorded her with Muddy Waters in 1966 and helped get her booked on the European tour seen above, called her " the sweetest and most generous person" and said she only carried a pistol to keep from being taken advantage of.
The sad thing, of course, is that gun and belligerence aside, she was well and truly cheated, dying in destitution in a boarding house in 1984 at only 57. Of course, the way she lived hastened her death quite a bit too. Whether the aforementioned alleged story is allegedly true or allegedly not, Big Mama lived and played hard, and paid a big price for it. Her chronic poverty was exacerbated by years of heavy drinking. By the 1970s she had dropped to just 95 pounds, and got by on a combination of gin and milk drunk straight from the bottle. Her emaciated state is clearly seen in this clip from her last concert in April 1984, singing "Ball And Chain." That enormous hat was probably not a wise fashion choice, seeing as it makes her look even tinier:
Here's another version from 1971, when her health was better:
Again from that 1984 concert, here's another version of "Hound Dog." I link to it mainly because you can see her suit better here, and the way it hangs on her body makes me wonder if David Byrne had it in mind when he wore his famous "big suit" in Stop Making Sense.
#1: Sister Rosetta
#2: Skip James
#3: Bukka White
#4: Howlin' Wolf
#5: Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee
#6: Bessie Smith (and Bo Diddley)
#7: Furry Lewis
#8: Son House
#9: Lightnin' Hopkins
#10: Lead Belly