They Call Her
Big Mama - Willa Mae Thornton©2002JKCMarion
Willa Mae Thornton was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1926. She got interested in music from the influence of her parents both of whom were with the local church, her father as a minister and her mother a choir singer. In the early to mid forties, she got experience in music as a member of a traveling revue called "Green's Hot Harlem Revue" which did one nighters throughout the South. In 1948 she settled in Houston, and appeared at night clubs such as the Bronze Peacock owned by Don Robey of Peacock Records. Her first appearance on record was in 1950 with a group called The Harlem Stars on E & W Records #100 with the songs "All Right Baby" and "Bad Luck Got My Man".
In 1951 Thornton began a long connection with Don Robey's Peacock label. The first release in the summer of that year was "Partnership Blues" and "All Fed Up" on #1567. The next Peacock record was in December with the Bill Harvey band on the tunes "No Jody For Me" and "Let Your Tears Fall Baby" on #1587. Willa Mae does a holiday show at the Bronze Peacock in Houston with Billy Wright, Marie Adams, and Jimmy McCracklin. "Let Your Tears Fall Baby" is a good seller.
"Everytime I Think Of You" and "Mischievous Boogie" recorded with the Joe Scott Orchestra is released on #1603. Thorton is called the Peacock Records "house rocker and show stopper" in trade ads. In October Thornton tours with Johnny Otis on the West Coast and readies a tour of Texas over the holidays. At year's end "Everytime" does well in Atlanta and Florida. In January of 1953 Willa Mae readies a tour with Johnny Ace and his band, and also has her newest Peacock release out. It will change the face of music over the next few years.
"Hound Dog" and "Nightmare" is released on #1612 recorded with the Johnny Otis band. "Hound Dog" takes off immediately and looks like a national hit record. Rufus Thomas quickly records an answer song called "Bear Cat" on Sun #181. Thornton's record is such a big seller that Peacock Records has three new pressing plants running full time to try and keep up with demand. The writers of the tune, two twenty year old former college students, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, have their mothers as legal guardians to their financial rewards from the hit tune which has a number of cover versions out. By mid summer, it is obvious that "Hound Dog" will be the biggest seller in the history of Peacock Records. In August, Willa Mae appears with Johnny Ace and his band at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles at the Fourth Annual Rhythm & Blues Jubilee. Willa Mae and Johnny Ace ready a big coast to coast tour during the fall. In late September after the incredible run of "Hound Dog", Willa Mae Thornton records her (second) signature tune "They Call Me Big Mama" on #1621 with the Johnny Otis band featuring Don Johnson on trumpet, George Washington on trombone, James van Streeter on tenor sax, Fred Ford on baritone sax, Devonia Williams on piano, Pete Lewis on guitar, Albert Winston on bass, Leard Bell on drums, and Johnny Otis on vibes and drums.
In late October, Thornton and Johnny Ace are set to appear at New York's Apollo Theater in their first eastern show, then they will be joined by Little Junior Parker & his Blue Flames on the tour. Spurred on by the success of gospel records, "Hound Dog" and Johnny Ace, Peacock and Duke Records move into new modern headquarters on Erastus Street in Houston. On Thanksgiving Night in Houston, B.B. King joins the Ace-Thornton-Parker show. At year's end Peacock releases "The Big Change" and "I Ain't No Fool Either". on #1626, and a duet with Johnny Ace on "Yes Baby" on Duke #118 ( the flip is "Saving My Love For You" by Johnny Ace). Willa Mae begins 1954 on a tour of the Southeast with Johnny Ace and the band of drummer C.C. Pinkston. In March Thornton and Ace do a week at Pep's in Philadelphia backed by the Johnny Board band, followed by a week at the Apollo Theater in New York. They next will head out to Ohio and the Midwest. In April "I Smell A Rat" and "I've Searched The World Over" are released on Peacock #1632. In June "I Smell A Rat" sells well and brings in big box office on the road in the Carolinas.
In August as Thornton tours the Southwest, Peacock Records releases #1642 - "Stop Hopping On Me" and "Story Of My Blues". By September, "Hopping" is selling big in Memphis and St. Louis. In October, added to the Ace - Thornton package for a West Coast swing are Memphis Slim and Faye Adams. "Rockabye Baby" and "Walking Blues" are released on #1647. In March of 1955 Peacock #1650 is out and features the songs "Laugth Laugh Laugh" and "The Fish". Late in the year Willa Mae records "How Come" and "Tarzan And The Dignified Monkey" with Elroy Peace on vocal on #1654. By 1956 the rock 'n roll age was upon the world, and as the new sensation Elvis Presley recorded "Hound Dog" to international acclaim, Peacock re-released Willa Mae Thornton's original on Peacock #1612. The Presley record spurs a number of lawsuits over the publishing rights. In early 1957 "Just Like A Dog" and "My Man Called Me" was released on #1681. By now Willa Mae Thornton is seen as one who is out of the rock / pop mainstream and so her affiliation with Peacock Records ends.
"Big Mama" Thornton continues to make personal appearances and is always remembered for her original version of "Hound Dog" which gets a spate of airplay during the summer of 1958 which leads to another re-release of the original. By the end of the year Thornton has moved permanently to the West Coast and does bookings at many California clubs such as the Rhumboogie in Oakland, the Gateway in Santa Cruz, and Basin Street West in San Francisco. In 1961 Willa Mae records for the Bay Tone label in Oakland with "You Did Me Wrong" and "Big Mama's Blues" on #107. In the mid sixties she recorded for Sotoplay Records in Los Angeles - "Summertime" and "Truth Comes To The Light" on #0033, and "Tomcat" on #0039. Willa Mae shows her harmonica talents on "Before Day" and "Me And My Chauffeur" for Kent #424. Besides the "Mississippi Saxophone" (harmonica) Thornton is also adept on the drums.
Further sixties recordings include Fontana #681 - a new version of "Hound Dog" with Eddie Boyd and Buddy Guy live at a blues festival in Hamburg, Germany. Willa Mae Thornton was now a fixture at blues and folk festivals both here and in Europe. In London in the late sixties she recorded albums for the Arhoolie label with Shakey Horton, Eddie Boyd, and Buddy Guy, and at another session with Muddy Waters, James Cotton, and Otis Spann which featured her rendition of "Ball 'n Chain" which was covered by Janis Joplin to great effect. Later recordings included LP albums for Mercury and Vanguard (the LP's "Jail" and "Sassy Mama" with Buddy Lucas & his combo). Other LPs in the late 70s include "Saved" for Pentagram, and "She's Back" for Backbeat. Continued appearances at every major music festival (Newport, Monterey, Montreaux, etc.) gained a whole new generation of fans for the woman known forever as Big Mama. In 1983 Buddha Records released "The Blues - A Summit Meeting" which featured Thornton with B.B. King, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and Muddy Waters at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Willa Mae Thornton's last recording was for the Ace label in England and took its title from a lyric line in "Hound Dog" - "Quit Snoopin' 'Round My Door". The end came for Thornton in July of 1984, and the world lost one of its most original talents in American music. Her talent lives on in her later LPs, many available on CD, and in "Hound Dog - The Peacock Recordings" an essential CD on the evolution of pop music in the world. Elvis was surely listening to Big Mama back in the day.
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