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Willie Mae Thornton
(December 11, 1926 - July 25, 1984) U.S.A.

Willie Mae Thornton

African-American singer

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"Big Mama" Thornton was born in Montgomery, Alabama. Her introduction to music, as with many fellow blues legends, started in the Baptist church. Her father was a minister and her mother was a church singer. She and her six siblings began to sing at a very early age. Thornton's musical aspirations led her to leave Montgomery in 1941, after her mother's death, when she was just fourteen, and she joined the Georgia-based Hot Harlem Revue.

Her seven-year tenure with the Revue gave her valuable singing and stage experience and enabled her to tour the South. In 1948, she settled in Houston, Texas, where she hoped to further her career as a singer. Willa Mae was also a self-taught drummer and harmonica player and frequently played both instruments onstage.

Big Mama began her recording career in Houston, signing a contract with Peacock Records in 1951. While working with another Peacock artist, Johnny Otis, she recorded Hound Dog , a song that composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had given her in Los Angeles. Although the record made her a star, she saw little of the profits. Hound Dog was her biggest hit, though her work was overshadowed when Elvis Presley recorded the song three years later.

And, while Presley's version of Hound Dog may be better known than Thornton's, many - including Thornton - were unimpressed. As one modern critic summarized: "when Elvis covered Hound Dog in 1956, he usurped black art in its purest form and refined it into a form deemed acceptable to the Western world. His jerky, crotch-centric movements... co-opt and rip-off Thornton's image of feminine masculinity and devalues it from an expression of liberation to an expression of domination".

Whereas Thornton's "hound dog" was a cheating lover with whom the liberated black woman had had enough, Presley's subject was the female herself (a female dog, in other words). Hound Dog made Elvis Presley a star (and a millionaire), yet he refused to ever acknowledge Thornton's influence.

She continued to record for Peacock until 1957 and performed with R&B package tours with Junior Parker and Esther Phillips. In 1954, Thornton was one of two witnesses to the death of blues singer Johnny Ace. Her career began to fade in the late '50s and early '60s. She left Houston and relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she mostly played local blues clubs.

In the late 1960s, Janis Joplin's recording of Thornton's Ball 'n' Chain brought renewed interest to the former's work. But, by the 1970s, the end of the American blues revival and years of heavy drinking took their toll on Thornton's health.

Willie Mae Thornton
Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, c. 1950

In 1966, Thornton recorded Big Mama Thornton With The Muddy Waters Blues Band. Songs included "Everything Gonna Be Alright", "Big Mama's Blues", "I'm Feeling Alright", "Everything Gonna Be Alright", "Big Mama's Bumble Bee Blues", "Looking The World Over", "Big Mama's Shuffle", and "Since I Fell For You", among others.

Her Ball 'n' Chain album in 1968, recorded with Lightnin' Hopkins (guitar) and Larry Williams (vocals), included the songs "Hound Dog", "Wade in the Water", "Little Red Rooster", "Ball 'n' Chain", "Money Taker", and "Prison Blues".

Thornton's last album was Jail (1975) for Vanguard Records. It vividly captures her charm during a couple of mid-'70's gigs at two northwestern prisons. She became the talented leader of a blues ensemble that features sustained jams from George "Harmonica" Smith, as well as guitarists B. Huston and Steve Wachsman, drummer Todd Nelson, saxophonist Bill Potter, bassist Bruce Sieverson, and pianist J.D. Nicholas.

Thornton performed at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 and 1968, and at the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1979. In 1965 she performed with the American Folk Blues Festival package in Europe. While in England that year, she recorded Big Mama Thornton in Europe and followed it up the next year in San Francisco with Big Mama Thornton with the Chicago Blues Band. Both albums came out on the Arhoolie label. Thornton continued to record for Vanguard, Mercury, and other small labels in the '70s and to work the blues festival circuit until her death in 1984, the same year she was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame.

Scant information exists regarding Thornton's relationships, though she is widely assumed to have enjoyed lesbian affairs. As she was a lesbian who often dressed as a man onstage, it's weird that the gay and lesbian community hasn't acclaimed her as a pioneering heroine. Biographical sources report that Thornton died alone and destitute. Jeannie Cheatham's memoir and Jack Jones' obituary, however, cite second-hand accounts that loved ones were with her when she collapsed from a heart attack, discrepancies that might reflect mourners' wishes to soften the tragedy.

Willie Mae Thornton died in Los Angeles of heart and liver complications, probably brought on by years of alcohol abuse which had reduced the one-time 350-pound "Big Mama" Thornton to a mere ninety-five pounds. Johnny Otis conducted her funeral services, and she was laid to rest in the famous Inglewood Park Cemetery, along with a number of notable people.

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Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - http://lgbt-history-archive.tumblr.com/ - et alii

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