Blog of Awesome Women / Big Mama Thornton: “Stronger than Dirt”
March 18

Blog of Awesome Women / Big Mama Thornton: “Stronger than Dirt”

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton checked out for good when the New Wave washed onto the music scene, dying of heart and liver failure in 1984. After fifty-seven years of hard living and a good deal of hard drinking, she was a mere shadow of herself in her last year, weighing only ninety-seven pounds. At the height of her careers, Thornton held center stage singing, drumming, and blowing harmonica with rhythm n’ blues luminaries Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Eddie Vinson, and Janis Joplin.

Her most remembered contribution to music history will always be the song “Hound Dog,” a number one hit in 1953 written especially for her by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It was as much her appearance as her blues style that influenced the writing of “Hound Dog.” “We wanted her to growl it,” Stoller later told Rolling Stone. Three years later, Elvis Presley covered Big Mama’s tune and took her signature song for his own. Like so many other black blues stars, she wasn’t mainstream enough; by 1957, her star had fallen so low she was dropped by her record label. And, like many other blues stars of the day, she was inadequately compensated for her work; although her incredible, soul-ripping rendition of “Hound Dog” sold two million copies, Big Mama received only one royalty check for $500.

Unstoppable, however, she hit the road, jamming with fellow blues masters, amazing audiences across America. Big Mama’s success came from her powerful presence on stage. She had begun performing publicly in the forties as an Atlanta teen where she danced in variety shows and in Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Review. Thornton’s own musical heroes were Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, whom she always held as great inspirations for her decision to pursue music as a career. Thornton was a completely self-taught musician who learned through watching, “I never had no one teach me nothing. I taught myself to sing and to blow the harmonica and even to play drums, by watching other people.”

James Brown, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, and Janis Joplin helped create a resurgence of interest in the blues in the sixties. Janis covered “Ball and Chain,” making that a huge hit to millions of fans who never knew Thornton’s version. In a sad repetition of history, the royalties to Big Mama’s “Ball and Chain” were contracted to her record company, meaning she didn’t get a dime from the sales of Joplin’s cover of the tune. However, because of the popularization, artists like Big Mama began to enjoy a crossover audience, and the spotlight they had previously been denied by a record-buying public producers believed preferred black music sanitized by singers such as Presley.

With a new interest in the real thing, Big Mama started performing at blues festivals around the world, resulting in classic recordings such as “Big Mama in Europe,” and “Stronger than Dirt,” where she was backed by Muddy Waters, James Cotton, and Otis Spann. “Stronger than Dirt” featured Thornton’s interpretations of Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway” and Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” Big Mama’s final albums were “Sassy Mama!” and “Jail,” a live album recorded in prisons. In 1980, Thornton, Sippie Wallace, and Koko Taylor headlined at the unforgettable “Blues Is a Woman” show at the Newport Jazz Festival. Although Big Mama barely made enough money to live on through her music, her contribution to blues was enormous. She died penniless and alone in a Los Angeles boardinghouse, decimated by drink and disappointed by her ill-treatment from the music industry. But she received tremendous respect from her peers and influences dozens of musicians, even to this day.

“At what point did rhythm n’ blues start becoming rock and roll? When the white kids started to dance to it.” — Ruth Brown

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


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