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Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer: Big Mama Thornton

While she’s probably best known for singing the original version of “Hound Dog,” Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton played harmonica and drums and sang in many rhythm and blues bands throughout her career, starting in the 1940s (Gaar 1). She was completely self taught; in her own words, “My singing comes with experience. I never had no one to teach me nothing. I taught myself to sing and to blow the harmonica and even to play drums, by watching other people” (Gaar 2). Her legacy inspired Janis Joplin, who covered Thornton’s song “Ball and Chain.” She must have inspired other legends too; the part at the 4:10 mark of “Ball and Chain” reminds me of Robert Plant’s singing at the 6:10 mark in Led Zeppelin’s “You Shook Me.”

Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” hit number 1 on the 1953 R&B charts, but Elvis Presley’s cover definitely overtook it in popularity. It’s tragic that Thornton never achieved the fame or money she deserved for her hard work; royalties from “Hound Dog” went to songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, not her (O’Neil 1). “Ball and Chain,” which Thornton composed herself, was copyrighted to her record company, so no royalties from that song went to her either (O’Dair 16). She died in 1984 of heart and liver failure, most likely due to extensive alcohol abuse that reduced her from a hefty 350 pounds to a tiny 95 pounds (Gaar 1). For whatever reason, she has yet to be inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame, an egregious oversight. The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame recognized her achievements as far back as 1984, though. The Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, based in New York, is named after her.


After listening to Big Mama’s version of this song, Elvis’ doesn’t sound quite as awesome, does it?


There’s some really beautiful guitar in this one.

Watch Big Mama play harmonica.

Sources used for this article:

Gaar, Gillian. She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. 2nd ed.New York: Seal Press, 2002. Print.

O’Dair, Barbara, ed. Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1997. Print.

O’Neil, Jim. “Big Mama Thornton.” The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. Web. 27 September 2011.

^ (Find this source here.)

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