Big Mama Thornton – The Big Mama of American Blues

Big Mama Thornton – Sassy Mama Live at the Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club Album Cover – Artwork by John Rummen

You’re nothing but a hunting dog
I poked around the door

We’ve probably all heard these lines at some point in our lives, whether it’s in a commercial, cartoon, or movie that’s good for playing in the background while you’re doing something else. And most of us only heard this song through the boyish growl of the idol who would later be crowned the “king of rock and roll,” Elvis Presley. The words above may sound a little familiar, but that’s not a mistake. That’s because this song – the song New York University music professor Maureen Mahon says “is considered an important beginning of rock and roll” – was originally sung by Willie Mae Thornton, or as she was known in the world of blue — Great Mom Thornton.

The daughter of a preacher, born December 11, 1926, in Ariton, Alabama (although she claims Montgomery), she grew up singing and falling in love with music following the beautiful black tradition – the church. Inspired by rhythm and blues singers Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, from an early age she threw caution to the wind and left home to pursue a musical career. It was around the same time that her mother passed away, and while it’s unclear if it prompted her to leave, but for a young black girl becoming a woman, she lost her mother in the 1940s in the rural south around nothing but racists and men. , I’m sure venturing into the dark unknown to pursue a dream that could never be didn’t seem like the scariest option.

After achieving several years of local success, she joined Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue and was soon introduced as the “New Bessie Smith”, his idol. She was a singer, songwriter, drummer, and harmonica player, and after many years as a traveling blues singer, she took her talents to Houston to record. While in Houston, she signed with Don Robey’s Peacock Records in 1951 and became a hit, touring the eastern and southern United States, including early career highlights performing at Houston’s Bronze Peacock and at Harlem’s Cotton Club.

Yes, you told me you were high class
But I could see right through it
And dad, I know
You’re not really a cool cat

It is not easy to gauge the success of black performers in the Jim Crow South. Some of our most iconic legends have only been “locally” or “moderately” successful compared to their white counterparts. What is considered a landmark Rock ‘n’ Roll hit was one of Big Mama’s oldest and most popular songs of her career, “Hunting dog.” Released in 1953, the record topped the R&B charts for seven weeks and sold over two million copies nationwide. Although the song brought fame, it brought very little fortune, earning him a miserable and disrespectful $500. Three years later, a young “impressionable” artist, Elvis Presley, will release his version, which will sell more than ten million copies.

Blues music suffered the same fate as jazz music, moving from the 50s to the 60s, losing popularity to rock ‘n’ roll. As Thornton’s popularity slowly faded, she moved to the awe-inspiring hills and beautiful lined streets of Victorian-era San Francisco, where she continued her career. Although the blues was not as popular, it still had a core audience, which, just like today, is conducive to the festival circuit. She has traveled Europe performing at blues and jazz festivals and gigs and on the local club scene in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

In one of these clubs, she sang a song that would become her second defining song for her career, “The Ball and the Chain” and this song caught the ear of acclaimed singer Janis Joplin. Joplin then created a version of the song and sang it at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Thornton eventually released his version the following year, but it was not acclaimed until Joplin’s version was released. released later that year. As with many blues artists and black artists in general, there were contract and copyright issues, although Thornton said in an interview that she gave Joplin permission and was fairly remunerated.

And while his career was enjoying a powerful and well-deserved boost in the 70s due to a second wave of interest in blues music, his health was slowly deteriorating after years of heavy drinking. She released several projects in the last round of her accomplished life. In a final stand, she showed strength to perform at the 1983 Newport Jazz Festival with a lineup that included Muddy Waters, BB King and Lloyd Glenn after recovering from a horrific car crash. She died in 1984, at the far too young age of 57, in Los Angeles on July 25 from complications following a heart attack. His stature, voice, talent and unapologetically larger-than-life personality will live on forever, with his immortal words echoing through the hall of music history.

You’re nothing but a hunting dog
Stop poking around the door
You’re nothing but a hunting dog
Stop snooping on my door
You can wag your tail
But I’m not going to feed you anymore, oh!

You can hear Big Mama Thornton sing “Ball And Chain” and “Hound Dog” on Justin Time Records Collection Essentials and Network Records remastered, limited edition, exclusive vinyl release from Sassy Mama Live at the Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton.

List of tracks:

In front of
1. Tell me pretty baby
2. Rock me baby
3. Ball and chain
4. Watermelon Man

1. Summer
2. Medley: Dog Hunting/Walkin’ The Dog
3. Medley: Sweet Little Angel/Three O’Clock
4. Sassy Mom
5. Hound Dog (Nerdstar Remix)

For more information about Justin Time Records, please visit

~ J. Frederick Robinson

Frederick Robinson is a writer from San Francisco who has been featured in several online publications. Currently, he is in the process of publishing a book focusing on profiles of the unseen personalities of Chicago’s South Side hospitality as part of the creative collaboration, The Prism Project. Follow him on

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