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Willie Mae ("Big Mama") Thornton (December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984) was an American rhythm and blues singer and songwriter. She was the first to record the hit song "Hound Dog" in 1952. The song was #1 on the Billboard R&B charts for seven weeks. The B-side was "They Call Me Big Mama," and the single sold almost two million copies. Three years later, Elvis Presley recorded his version, based on a version performed by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. In a similar occurrence, she wrote and recorded "Ball 'n' Chain," which became a hit for her. Janis Joplin later recorded "Ball and Chain," and was a huge success in the late 1960s.
In 1966, Thornton recorded Big Mama Thornton With The Muddy Waters Blues Band, with Muddy Waters (guitar), Sammy Lawhorn (guitar), James Cotton (harmonica), Otis Spann (piano), Luther Johnson (bass guitar), and Francis Clay (drums). Songs included "Everything Gonna Be Alright", "Big Mama's Blues", "I'm Feeling Alright", "Big Mama's Bumble Bee Blues", "Looking The World Over", "Big Mama's Shuffle", and "Since I Fell For You", among others.
Her Ball 'n' Chain album in 1968, recorded with Lightnin' Hopkins (guitar) and Larry Williams (vocals), included the songs "Hound Dog", "Wade in the Water", "Little Red Rooster", "Ball 'n' Chain", "Money Taker", and "Prison Blues".
Thornton's last album was Jail (1975) for Vanguard Records. It vividly captures her charm during a couple of mid-'70's gigs at two northwestern prisons. She became the talented leader of a blues ensemble that features sustained jams from George "Harmonica" Smith, as well as guitarists B. Huston and Steve Wachsman, drummer Todd Nelson, saxophonist Bill Potter, bassist Bruce Sieverson, and pianist J.D. Nicholas.
Thornton performed at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 and 1968, and at the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1979. In 1965 she performed with the American Folk Blues Festival package in Europe. While in England that year, she recorded Big Mama Thornton in Europe and followed it up the next year in San Francisco with Big Mama Thornton with the Chicago Blues Band. Both albums came out on the Arhoolie label. Thornton continued to record for Vanguard, Mercury, and other small labels in the '70s and to work the blues festival circuit until her death in 1984, the same year she was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame.
During her career, she appeared on stages from New York City's famed
Apollo Theater in 1952 to the Kool Newport Jazz Festival in 1980, and
was nominated for the Blues Music Awards six times . In addition to
"Ball 'n' Chain" and "They Call Me Big Mama," Thornton wrote twenty
other blues songs.
In 2007, in the movie Hounddog, singer Jill Scott played "Big Mama" Thornton.
Thornton is also the namesake of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls