Black Women: The OGs of Rock & Roll — Big Mama Thornton

Black Women: The OGs of Rock & Roll — Big Mama Thornton

Exploring the life of one of the unacknowledged and forgotten originators of rock & roll: Big Mama Thornton

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Black women are the largely unacknowledged and forgotten originators of rock & roll. This exhibit explores the life of Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton. The blues singer helped lay the template for singing rock & roll and commanding a stage with swagger.

Origins: Before she was Big Mama, she was Willie Mae Thornton

On December 11, 1926, in the small town of Ariton, Alabama, Thomas Thornton and his wife Edna welcomed their daughter Willie Mae into the world. Willie Mae was well-schooled in gospel music tradition by her Baptist minister father and choir-singing mother. But sadly, her mom passed away when little Willie Mae was just 12 years old.

Filled with the blues, she ran away from home, hoping to become a singer and performer like her idol, Bessie Smith. Eventually, Willie Mae found work with various gospel, blues, and R&B acts as a self-taught singer, harmonica player, and drummer.

An illustration of a young Willie Mae filled with the blues (colored blue) running away. She is playing a harmonica. There is an inset drawing of Bessie Smith beside her.
Little Willie Mae runs away from home, hoping to become a singer like her idol, blues star Bessie Smith.

The Chitlin' Circuit

With her undeniable talent and showmanship, she began solo headlining on the Chitlin’ Circuit — a series of venues throughout the segregated South, East Coast, and Upper Midwest that were safe spaces for African-American audiences and performers during segregation and Jim Crow.

A map of some of the key stops along the Chitlin' Circuit.
A map of some of the key stops along the Chitlin' Circuit.

Big Mama is born

A 1951 show-stealing,  thundering performance at the Mecca of the Chitlin' Circuit, Harlem's Apollo Theater, led to its manager bestowing Willie Mae with a nickname she'd wear proudly throughout her career, "Big Mama.” From then on, audiences would know her as Big Mama Thornton. It was a well-earned stage name due to her stature both physically, at nearly 6 feet, 200 pounds, and charismatically due to her booming voice, bodacious talent, and take no bull crap demeanor—which she developed from the hard years she spent on the road.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and "Hound Dog"

In 1952, two teenage songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, approached Big Mama to record a 12-bar blues they’d written especially for her. Leiber and Stoller were Jewish Americans from Baltimore and Queens, New York, respectively, who both loved Black music and culture, and Big Mama’s voice and charisma knocked them out.

An illustration of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller composing a song on the left side of the graphic. On the right is a drawing of Jerry, Mike, and Big Mama's faces all smiling together.
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's authentic love for Black music and culture led to the writing of rock & roll classics like "Hound Dog."

They wrote “Hound Dog,” an innuendo-filled song about a woman ridding herself of a trifling gigolo for her. Released in 1953, it became a massive success on the R&B charts—remaining number one for several weeks! It managed to sell over 2 million copies despite the obstacles of receiving no airplay on White radio and only being available for purchase at Black record shops.

A BMP infographic showing a 45 record of "Hound Dog." Next are some key stats: innuendo-filled, 14 weeks on the R&B chart, seven weeks at number one, and 2 million copies sold.
Big Mama's "Hound Dog," written by Leiber & Stoller, is a massive hit on the R&B charts.

Elvis' "Hound Dog" enjoys crossover exposure denied to Big Mama

Three years later, Elvis Presley released his version of “Hound Dog.” It became an even bigger smash than Big Mama’s record, thanks partly to national radio play on both R&B and pop stations. Elvis’s record enjoyed the crossover exposure denied to Big Mama Thornton. He sold over 10 million copies even though his version neutered this dog of its double-entendre.

A BMP infographic showing a picture of Elvis Presley singing to an actual hound dog on a television show from the 1950s. Next to the photo are key stats about Elvis' cover version, including notes about its selling ten million copies and the opportunity for mainstream crossover appeal on both R&B and pop radio.
Elvis' "Hound Dog" (a neutered version compared to Big Mama's) is an even bigger smash and enjoyed crossover exposure denied to Big Mama.

Adhering to Industry Rule number 4,080, “record industry people are shady.” None of the creators of the original received royalties for "Hound Dog." However, Leiber and Stoller eventually worked out a royalty deal as songwriters by leveraging their ability to write future hits for Elvis. Unfortunately, like most African-American performers of her day, Big Mama wasn’t given royalties from the multi-million-selling hit and was paid only a flat fee of $500.

Though she gained fame in the Black community, Big Mama Thornton never received mainstream opportunities at the height of her career— due to the twin societal obstacles of racism and sexism. 1950s America just wasn’t ready for this style of raw, unadulterated Blackness— especially not in this powerful female form.

1950s America just wasn’t ready for this style of raw, unadulterated Blackness— especially not in this powerful female form.

An untimely demise but a multi-generational influence

In the late 60s, she enjoyed a brief comeback during the blues revival, but as tastes changed, moving away from her traditional down-home style of music, Big Mama’s career stalled. As the spotlight faded, her health deteriorated due to years of heavy drinking. Sadly, on July 25, 1984, while living in a Los Angeles boarding house, she died from a heart attack, destitute, at only the age of 57.

But since her death, many have come to acknowledge her importance as the source of a river of rock & roll influence on many frontmen and women. Big Mama showed them how to sing and command a stage with swagger, broke barriers, and set the template for boundary-pushing, gender-bending rockers who followed her— like Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury, and many others.

An illustration of Big Mama at the head of a river. The caricatures of Elvis, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Robert Plant, and Freddie Mercury flow from the river.
Big Mama's voice and stage presence are at the source of a river of rock & roll influence that continues to flow.

Big Mama Thornton paved the way for powerful Black female performers like Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Beyoncé, and others to unapologetically and confidently be their full, dynamic, Black-is-beautiful selves.

A collage of Big Mama Thornton and the Black women she helped pave the way for.
From the top l to r: Big Mama, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Beyoncé. Bottom row l to r: Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, SZA, Jazmine Sullivan, Saweetie, Lizzo

Access Denied

In 1984 the same year she passed away, Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. But, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame gatekeepers have excluded Big Mama from induction—only including “Hound Dog” and a self-penned tune of hers, “Ball’ n’ Chain,” to their list of 500 early influence songs.

An illustration showing Big Mama's exclusion from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. There is a security guard behind a velvet rope saying, "You don't belong here!" The caricature of the security guard is based on Calvert DeForest, aka Larry 'Bud' Melman, from Run DMC's iconic King of Rock video.
This illustration includes a music video deep-cut. IYKYK.

However, regardless of whether the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognizes it or not, her influence and legacy continue. But, if you want to show the Hall Big Mama deserves to be alongside those she influenced and inspired, please consider signing this petition to add your voice to those calling for Big Mama’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

A quote from Big Mama next to her photo: "My singing comes from my experience... I taught myself to sing... blow harmonica and even to play the drums by watching other people. I don't sing like nobody but myself."
She may have sung like no one but herself, but many others have tried to imitate the template she set down.
A photo of Big Mama asking readers to add their names to the petition.
Consider adding your name to the petition to induct Big Mama into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

How to support The Black Music Project

To learn more about African-American music’s importance to US and world culture, please explore our other exhibits from our 2023 Webby Award Honoree for Educational and Mobile Sites website.

If you believe in the mission of the Black Music Project and want to help us reach more people, please consider supporting us by purchasing some of our exclusive merch inspired by the music you love (you can receive 12% off everything during Black History Month 2024 using the code BHM2024) or making a tax-deductible donation through our fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas.

Links and resources:

Alabama Heritage: Big Mama Thornton & Hound Dog

AllMusic: Leiber & Stoller Biography

Far Out Magazine: The mother of rock and roll: The extraordinary life of Big Mama Thornton

Far Out Magazine: Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Big Mama Thornton

The Guardian: Why are women so marginalized by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

Grunge: The truth about the original hound dog song

USAToday: Hallowed Sound - The roaring nights that shaped American music

Variety: Songwriter Mike Stoller on How He and Jerry Leiber Wrote Two Dozen Classics for Elvis — Before the Colonel Cut Them Off From the King

WBUR: 'Elvis' reminds viewers of Big Mama Thornton's blues hits, including the original 'Hound Dog'

Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters

Yale University Online Library: The Struggles and Triumphs of Bessie Jones, Big Mama Thornton, and Ethel Waters