December 12, 1926 – Willie Mae Thornton:
“My singing comes from my experience. I never went to school for music or nothin’. I taught myself to sing and to blow harmonica and even to play drums by watchin’ other people!”
You kids might have heard of an entertainer from the 20th century named Elvis Presley, and perhaps you may have even heard him sing, ”I ain’t nothin” but a hound dog. For a while it was his signature song. It certainly propelled him to fame, Pop Icon status and lifetime earnings of $5 billion.
It is less likely you have heard of Big Mama Thornton. Thornton did not write Hound Dog. That credit goes to the popular songwriting and producing duo Jerry Leiber and Michael Stoller, who also penned Ben E. King‘s hit Stand By Me and Spanish Harlem. Together they wrote over 70 hit songs. Thornton first recorded Hound Dog in 1952 and received $500 in payment, her only earnings from the song, which was written for and inspired by Thornton. After meeting her, Leiber and Stroller were so inspired and awestruck by the 350lb woman, they wrote the piece to match her personality.
Hound Dog was Thornton’s only hit record, selling over 500,000 copies, spending 14 weeks in the R&B charts, including seven weeks at Number One. It is listed as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame‘s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll” and was inducted into the Grammy Fame Hall of in 2013.
The Presley version is one of the bestselling singles of all time. It has sold 11 million copies and was his top song. It was simultaneously Number One on the Pop, Country, and R&B charts in 1956, topping the Pop chart for 11 weeks (a record that stood for 36 years). Presley’s 1956 RCA recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988, and it is also listed as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”. Presley made $3 million of the single.
The discrepancy between the fortunes of Thornton and Presley is one of the most notorious examples of the inequity that existed when a Black original was covered by a white artist.
Thornton was a pioneer rhythm-and-blues artist. Her voice was unlike anything else: deep and powerful, tapped into a liberated Black feminist persona which she freed her from the expectations of what was expected from the musical and physical norm for Black women. From the start of her career, both in appearance and in her music, Thornton transgressed the rigid social boundaries of gender expression. She wore traditionally masculine clothing, had total control her male band members, and sang about sex in an era when Black men had to be cautious of any innuendo.
Presley’s version of Hound Dog may be more famous than Thornton’s, but Thornton was unimpressed. She understood that he had usurped her Black art, His crotch-centric movements and the play on feminine masculinity were Thornton’s. And in the lyrics, ”hound dog” was the cheating lover of a strong liberated Black woman who had had enough. In Presley’s recording the dog is the female herself.
Thornton was born in tiny Ariton, Alabama. She was introduced to music in the Baptist church, where her father was a minister, and her mother was a singer in the choir. Her mother died young, and Thornton quit school and got a job washing and cleaning the spittoons in a tavern.
In 1940, she joined the traveling Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue where she was billed as the “New Bessie Smith”. Thornton’s career took off when she moved to Houston in 1948, just in time for new kind of popular Blues coming out of the clubs in Texas, with brass horns, jumpy rhythms, and saucy lyrics. In 1951, she performed at the Apollo Theater. The next year she recorded Hound Dog. Leiber and Stoller were present at the recording. Stoller said:
“We wanted her to growl it, which she did.”
Her career began to fade in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She left Houston and played clubs in San Francisco and Los Angles and recording for a succession of labels. In 1965, she toured with the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe.
In 1969, Janis Joplin recorded Thornton’s Ball ‘N’ Chain bringing renewed interest to Thornton’s work. But the 1970s American Blues revival had original Blues acts like Thornton playing smaller venues, while younger artists played their versions of Blues in massive arenas for big money.
For Thornton, the offers became fewer and smaller. Things changed when years of heavy drinking began to damage Thornton’s health. She was in a serious auto accident but recovered in time to perform at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival with Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Thornton’s last album was recorded in 1975.
In the early 1970s, Thornton’s queerness became a bit of a problem for a lot of Blues fans. She performed in a concert in 1977, appearing with lesbian Blues legend Sippie Wallace, wearing a man’s three-piece suit, straw hat, and gold watch. She sat center stage and played pieces she wanted to play, which were not on the program.
Thornton was found dead by medical personnel in a Los Angeles boarding house in summer 1984. She was 57 years old. She died of heart and liver failure due to her longstanding alcohol abuse. In a short time, because of illness, her weight had dropped from 450 to 95 pounds.
She was a Black female voice in a field that was dominated by white males, and her strong personality transgressed stereotypes of what an African-American woman should be.
It was not until Janis Joplin covered Thornton’s Ball ‘N’ Chain that it became a hit. Thornton did not receive compensation for her song, but Joplin had Thornton open for her. Joplin found her singing voice through Thornton, who praised Joplin saying:
“That girl feels like I do.”