No copyright infringement intended, all rights belong to their respective copyright owners © source: Big Mama Thornton, 1981 (Los Angeles Public Library) https://timeline.com/lesbian-blues-harlem-secret-f3da10ec2334
~Every week from the vaults… a vinyl rarity which crackles, grinds, moves, grooves, hurts, or just awfully tickles…
Smasher of the week # 6
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton is of course best known as the original interpreter of two songs which catapult two white artists into stardom: “Hound Dog” (Elvis Presley, 1956) and “Ball and Chain” (Janis Joplin, 1967). Both songs are in the list of 500 essential songs to which we owe R&R according to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Willie Mae herself has never been inducted into that same R&R Hall of Fame.
So allow me to bring my own little homage to this true R&R original.
Let’s kick off with her version of the classic “That Lucky Old Sun”
Willie Mae’s younger years
Willie Mae is born on December 11, 1926 in Ariton, a very small town in the deep south of Alabama, about 120 kilometers from Montgomery, the second largest city in this southern state. Her dad is a pastor and her mom sings in the church. The Thornton family, descendants of Indians and slaves, has a hard time in the 1930s. The Great Depression hits them hard, the Thornton’s have trouble making ends meet just like most inhabitants of Ariton. Life on and around the plantations is miserable. When mother Thornton falls seriously ill, young Willie Mae stays home to take care of her. She does not mind giving up school for she is often bullied by her classmates ‘cos of her scarred face and hefty build.
Her mother dies when Willie Mae is 13 years old. There is little time for mourning: she has to immediately take on a job as a cleaner in a local juke joint in order to put money and food on the table for her 6 brothers and sisters. A few years later Willie Mae decides to register for a singing contest: to her own big surprise she is spotted by a vaudeville group while performing. She is overjoyed by their contract offer, hoping to escape her poverty and daily misery. For 8 years she tours around the country with Sam Green’s Hot Harlem Revue. Among his entourage is one Richard Perriman, later known as Little Richard. Sam Green is a hustler, underpaying and extorting his artists while running a few brothels on the side. Life on the road turns out to be anything but financially rewarding for Willie Mae: often she has to go from door to door to beg for food. By cleaning shoes in between shows she manages to keep her head above the water…
She teaches herself to play the bluesharp and drums. On stage Willie can briefly forget the harsh daily realities, connecting with her audience through playful banter. Her massive voice and stage presence knock her listeners out. She has no musical heroes, she is just herself, a born entertainer. Fed up with the hustler Green she decides to embark on her own career, making Houston her permanent base. Here she wins her first record deal in the early 1950s on the Peacock label, ruled by the gangster Don Robey with an iron fist. Robey sees the potential in Willie Mae, although he probably considers her rude and vulgar, too much of a mannish woman and country bumpkin. The first recordings of Willies’ self-penned blues songs fail to have any impact: the lame production concocted by Robey doesn’t mix well with Big Mama’s powerful voice. Robey is naturally dismayed by the mediocre sales results but choses to avoid direct confrontation with Thornton who is the vocal equivalent of Sonny Liston and anything but easily intimidated.
Instead he decides to bring in Johnnie Otis, the Greek R&B bandleader, to record a song with Willie called “Hound Dog”, a tune allegedly specially written for her by the jewish duo Leiber and Stoller in 1952. During the recording session Otis affectionately calls Willie Mae “Big Mama”, the name which will stick to her for the rest of her life. Together they lay down one of the fundaments of Rock & Roll when R&R is still called R&B. Unexplicably the record is kept on the shelves for over a year before Peacock Records finally releases it. Willie Mae has almost forgotten about the recording till she hears the song on the radio, being on the road with Esther Phillips and Johnny Ace as part of the Johnny Otis’ R&B revue.
Big Mama’s song becomes a mega-hit among the black population, sales go through the roof: over 500,000 copies are sold within just a few months. The bass loop (Mario de Legarde), the guitar licks (Peter “Guitar” Lewis), the frivolous text and the fantastic vocal performance all strike a chord with the black listeners. Willie Mae sings about a good-for-nothing guy who likes to show off, but is actually only after one thing… Big Mama doesn’t let herself be fooled and resolutely shows him the door… He ain’t nothing but a Hound Dog, ain’t he? Female Rock & Roll avant la lettre. With sales skyrocketing, Robey tries to bestow the copyrights on himself: a perennial conflict with Leiber, Stoller and Johnny Otis is born. And Big Mama? She has been paid 500 bucks for her vocal contribution…
Rock & Roll revolution
The R & R “revolution” in the mid-50s almost nips Willae Mae’s career in the bud. Elvis, an avid fan of black gospel and R&B, transforms into a national phenomenon with his thrilling version of Hound Dog. White audiences are more and more starting to dig R&B. His cunning manager Colonel Parker ensures Elvis isn’t ripped off like Big Mama. To the contrary, the Colonel turns the shy southern boy into a money making machine. Unfortunately Willie Mae doesn’t enjoy the same level of success and fame, though she stubbornly perseveres in writing songs and in doing her own musical thing.
The pop and rock waves of the ’60’s push her into near oblivion. But Big Mama fights back: she triumphs at blues festivals popping up across the USA, leading to invites from Europe. These blues concerts are visited by young white audiences. They are enthralled by Willie’s voice, showwomanship and improvisations on stage: 2 decades of doing life performances are paying off. New doors are opening: she is invited to record with the bands of blues superstars Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. The gospel album she has always dreamt of finally sees the lights (1971: Saved). In between she finds the time to launch a great LP with a mix of funk, blues and R&R, appropriately called “Stronger than Dirt” . Big Mama is back with a vengeance.
With Stronger Than Dirt, Big Mama’s record company Mercury attempts to ride the waves of Janis Joplin’s popularity: since 1967 Joplin has been singing “Ball and Chain” , written by Thornton as far back as 1961, as the grand finale of all her live performances. Ever since seeing Willie Mae perform this song live, Joplin has been a devoted fan. Some bluespurists call “Stronger than Dirt” too commercial: there always seem to be people who like to downplay the role and music of Big Mama.
Thornton no longer owns the rights to Ball & Chain, they have been shrewdly appropriated by her then record company in 1961. As Willie Mae Thornton is explicitly mentioned as the songwriter on Joplin’s LPs, she at least partially shares in the royalties generated by Janis’ albums’ sales. Like some other white rock stars and fans of black R&B, Joplin struggles with the difficult question, “how to respect the architect”? A few times Janis arranges Willie Mae as her support act and she always proudly proclaims her admiration for Big Mama, the R&B giant.
Thornton outlives the much more successful Joplin and Presley despite an equally rough or probably even much rougher life. To underscore her resilience she occasionally and casually likes to mention in interviews that “only the strong survive”. But she doesn’t like to talk much about her past. She is believed to have had a son in her Harlem Revue days whom she allegedly gave up or had to give up to the State for adoption because of her poverty and hectic life on the road. She also doesn’t want to be reminded of the day her drunken buddy Johnny Ace accidentally shot himself in front of her eyes, on Christmas eve 1954. She prefers to put up a brave face and be strong, be by herself, minding her own business. She is tough as hell and a loner: even back in the days, in the fifties, she was racing from performance to performance in her battered old Cadillac, cooking her meals on a butane gas stove next to the car and selling food before the start of her concerts. It’s usually been Johnny Walker who has been helping her ward off her loneliness, though she is always making sure she is able to perform, the show must go on…
In the shadow
She never attains the fame of a Joplin or Presley. In bitter and tipsy moments she might even curse or loathe those darned Presley and Joplin. She for sure despises the predominantly white music industry and those criminal record bosses who have cheated her. Those feelings of bitterness are very understandable, especially in view of the negative reputation she has had to fight against for most of her life. She has been portrayed as dumb, rude and a bumpkin. She has been rumored not to shy away from intimidation if record company owners or promoters have been too slow in paying out the money. Her lifestyle does not work to her advantage either: she does not seem to take care of her finances very well and prefers to live from day to day. Her pockets might be bulging with cash today, yet could be empty tomorrow. She doesn’t let herself be managed, she rarely has a permanent support band, she can be critical of others if they don’t live up to her (musical) expectations, she is a loner, who -living the life she had to do- has obviously problems trusting people…
Part of her own black community doesn’t embrace her either: in the 1960s she sometimes exchanges her dresses and pumps for lumberjack shirts, men’s trousers and sturdy shoes: she resembles John Lee Hooker. The gossip about her sexual preferences likely make her grab the bottle even more..
Big Mama does not understand all the commotion about her clothes and personality. She again is a pioneer, far ahead of her time. To quote herself: “I always had self-respect. I was responsible for looking after myself because I was on my own. And I always held my head high. ” All those stories about her intimidating personality, she calls them fables: “I never did fight the promoters. All I ever did was ask them for my money. Pay me and there won’t be no hard feelings. They always have been jealous of me, because when I hit that stage, I perform. I give you entertainment. I don’t go out on stage trying to look pretty. I was born pretty. Just get out there and perform.” (See eg the following partial concert registration in 1971 by Big Mama Thornton in Eugene, Oregon with Muddy Waters and Big Joe Turner joining at the end)
Willie Mae has realized since the beginning of her career: it’s a man’s world. Fortunately, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker, the biggest names in the blues business, are in awe of her. She gets the chance to record a few more LPs in the course of the ’70s and makes the occasional appearance at blues or jazz festivals. Yet she is gradually forgotten. B.B., Muddy and John Lee can as blues men still jump on the white men’s rock bandwagon, Big Mama drowns in the sea of pop and disco, which starts flooding the radio channels.
The booze slowly destroys her body, some of her illnesses don’t receive adequate or timely treatment. There is no capable manager who is looking after her. Her daily diet of milk or orange juice mixed with whiskey or gin has disastrous effects: from a blues giant weighing over 200 kg, Big Mama shrinks into a feather weight of 43 kg. After more than 40 years in the music business, Willie Mae still firmly adheres to the adage “the show must go on”, she never wants to disappoint her fans, they are all what she has left and cares for. She cautiously shuffles across the stage for the last time in April 1984, wearing an immense suit and a too large hat: she wants the world to know she is still alive and kicking. Three months later, on July 25, 1984, she dies in her sleep in Los Angeles at the age of 57 due to acute liver and heart failure. Before going to sleep, she calls her sister Mattie for the last time and together they hum her favorite old song, “That Lucky Old Sun.”
Johnny Otis, the R&B pioneer who in his spare time is a consecrated priest, praises at the funeral in LA. “Mama always told me that the blues were more important than having money. She told me: Artists are artists and businessmen are businessmen. But the trouble is the artist’s money stays in the businessmen’s hands …. Don’t waste your sorrow on Big Mama. She’s free. Don’t feel sorry for Big Mama. There’s no more pain. No more suffering in a society where the color of skin was more important than the quality of your talent. ”
But Big Mama can rest assured: the strongest has survived.
Willie Mae’s original version of Hound Dog is closest to authentic, raw rock & roll. The text does of course not refer to a dog, but to a charlatan who is hunting for sex:
PS: Hound Dog
“You ain’t nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin’ ’round the door
You ain’t nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin’ ’round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain’t gonna feed you no more
You told me you was high-class
But I could see through that
Yes, you told me you was high-class
But I could see through that
And daddy, I know
You ain’t no real cool cat “
To make the song more acceptable and danceable for a wider audience, Elvis sings it at a much faster pace and in a censored text that came into vogue in 1955 by Freddie Bell and The Bellboys. In this text even a rabbit is conjured up … Elvis’ fantastic voice, act and hip movements trigger the rock & roll and ecstasy associations.
“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Cryin’ all the time
You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Cryin’ all the time
Well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine Well they said you was high-classed
Well, that was just a lie
Yeah they said you was high-classed
Well, that was just a lie
Well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine “
Only one Big Mama Thornton biography has been published to date: Michael Spörke, “Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music” 2014, which I have not been able to get hold of.
My above tribute is an interpretation based on available interviews, magazine and newspaper articles and obituaries on the internet