“Ball ‘n’ Chain – Big Mama Thornton
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton hit the blues scene with “Hound Dog” , written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, which topped Billboard’s R&B charts for seven weeks in 1953. She sold 2 million copies, and received only $500. This was her biggest hit. She went on to write today’s song, and about 20 others.
Big Mama went on to play and record up until her death in 1984, though they were lean years in the late 50’s. Traditional blues were revived due to the interest of artists such as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones in the 60’s. Janis Joplin was heavily influenced by Big Mama. She was living in San Francisco at that time and the Bay Area became a center of blues activity. She played the Monterey Jazz Festival and in 1965 toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival.
She played with Muddy Waters, Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins, B. B. King, Otis Spawn, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Buddy Guy, Walter Horton, and Freddy Below. Her performances met rave reviews at the 1979 San Francisco Blues Festival, and the 1983 Newport Jazz Festival. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984.
I recall hearing her play at a blues festival organized by friends in Minnesota one summer, 1969 perhaps, situated in the middle of a field in the countryside. I was surprised such a big talent was playing this little home-grown festival, and was riveted by her performance.
She sang like no one else…indeed, had her very own style of belting out the blues. Her addition of harmonica made her an even more complete blues act. She was known as a “tough cookie”, and wasn’t afraid of letting the world know she was a lesbian…gutsy at that time.
She was born December 11, 1926 in Montgomery, AL and died of a heart attack at age 57 on July 25, 1984 in Los Angeles, CA.
Note: RIP Scott McKenzie. He was the guy who sang the hippie anthem in 1967 “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”. Died August 18, 2012 in LA at age 73.