Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton was described by songwriter Jerry Stoller as “a bit frightening,” “a force of nature” and “absolutely magnificent.” With her larger-than-life personality and spicy take on the Blues she was one of the R&B performers that helped usher in the coming of Rock and Roll.
Like many R&B performers of her generation, Thornton started singing in church as a youngster. By her teens she was playing drums, guitar and harmonica and developing her earthy singing voice playing shows around her home base of Montgomery, Ala. She spent much of the 1940s touring the South as part of the “Hot Harlem Review” and began recording in 1952 for the Peacock label.
Thornton’s career peaked in 1953 with the single "Hound Dog." Written specifically for Thornton by Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller and recorded with backing by Johnny Otis’ band, “Hound Dog” was No. 1 on the R&B chart for seven weeks. The song would become something of a phenomenon when Elvis Presley had one of his formative hits with it in 1956, taking it to No. 1 on the Pop charts (though Lieber and Stoller both pronounced their preference for Thornton’s slower, slinkier version).
Thornton was never able to match the success of “Hound Dog,” and her life and career had many ups and downs. With the Blues revival of the 1960s she was able to revitalize her flagging fortunes and her profile was raised further when her song "Ball and Chain” was covered in 1968 by Janis Joplin.
In her final years, due to the effects of cirrhosis of the liver and a serious car accident, Thornton’s once 350-pound frame had been emaciated to 95 pounds, but she continued to perform until her death in 1984.