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Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton

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Biography

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.

Early life
Thornton was born in Montgomery, Alabama. Her introduction to music started in the Baptist church. Her father was a minister and her mother was a church singer. She and her six siblings began to sing at a very early age. Thornton’s musical aspirations led her to leave Montgomery in 1941, after her mother’s death, when she was just fourteen, and she joined the Georgia-based Hot Harlem Revue. Her seven-year tenure with the Revue gave her valuable singing and stage experience and enabled her to tour the South. In 1948, she settled in Houston, Texas, where she hoped to further her career as a singer. Willa Mae was also a self-taught drummer and harmonica player and frequently played both instruments onstage.

Career
Thornton began her recording career in Houston, signing a contract with Peacock Records in 1951. While working with another Peacock artist, Johnny Otis, she recorded “Hound Dog”, a song that composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had given her in Los Angeles. The record was produced by Johnny Otis, and went to number one on the R&B chart.

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