Elvis Presley became an icon of rock ‘n’ roll. Willie Mae Thornton ended up in a pauper’s grave.

It was “Big Mama” Thornton who first recorded “Hound Dog” – before Elvis made it a classic. Fans dubbed her Big Mama because of her forceful vocal style and commanding stature.

“Hound Dog” was a hit for Thornton, too. Her version stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart for seven weeks in 1953 and sold almost two million copies. She earned $500 for her trouble.

“Her legacy is being a trailblazer for women,” said Gil Anthony, host of Blues Power, a syndicated radio show. “She’s the one who closed shows; they learned you didn’t bring anybody on after Big Mama Thornton.”

She was born Dec. 11, 1926, outside of Montgomery in rural Ariton, Alabama. Her father was a Baptist minister and her mother was a singer in his congregation. Anthony said Thornton could always sing, being brought up in the church.

She was 14 when her mother died. Soon after, Thornton left home to pursue a career as an entertainer, according to an account of her life in blackpast.com.

In 1941, Thornton joined Sammy Green’s Georgia-based show, The Hot Harlem Revue, and remained with him for seven years. She sang and danced throughout the Southeast. She later acknowledged the influence of contemporary artists including Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Junior Parker and Memphis Minnie.

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was a large personality in Alabama and blues music from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, in 1948 Thornton left the Revue and settled in Houston, where she would contribute to the development of the “Texas blues” style. During this period, she signed a five-year contract with Peacock Records. Thornton’s open lesbianism caused some tension with producer Don Robey, but he organized her first recordings and set up a regular performance schedule for her in his Houston club. She spent much of the early 1950s on the road or recording for Robey or bandleader Johnny Otis when in Houston or Los Angeles.

In 1952, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote the song “Hound Dog” specifically for Thornton. “It took them 15 minutes to write the song,” said Anthony.

As a Black artist during segregation, Thornton was unable to cross over to a white radio audience. But it was different for Presley. In 1956 he performed his version of “Hound Dog” for a national TV audience on “The Steve Allen Show.” The song “crossed over,” charting on R&B and country charts and then the pop chart.

And while Presley’s swiveling hips would be shocking to some, his version of “Hound Dog” is considered the tamer of the two.

Thornton’s performances were characterized by her deep, powerful voice and strong sense of self. She wrote several blues songs, including “Ball and Chain,” which is included in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.” Scholars have praised Thornton for subverting the traditional roles of African American women. She added a gutsy female voice to a field that was dominated by males, and her strong personality derailed stereotypes. She was a major influence on younger blues and soul singers, including Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin. “Ball and Chain” became a signature number for Joplin in 1968, according to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.

Thornton continued to record through the 1970s and played at many blues and jazz festivals in the U.S. and Europe. But her health declined amid the stresses of touring and performing, and heavy alcohol use.

She was found dead in 1984 in a Los Angeles boarding house. She was 57. That same year, she was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2020.

 

Throughout March, Alabama NewsCenter is recognizing Alabama women of distinction, past and present, in celebration of Women’s History Month.