Written by Michael Spörke
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Even if her career had been limited to just two songs, Big Mama Thornton still would be vital part of blues – and rock – history. She had a major hit with the original version of “Hound Dog,” in 1953 but was eclipsed forever three years later when Elvis Presley blasted through the song on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, creating shock waves that shook the world of music for decades. And when Janis Joplin fronted Big Brother & the Holding Company at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, their slowed-down, smoldering version of Thornton’s “Ball & Chain” mesmerized the audience and quickly was acknowledged as a classic performance.
With the first biography on her amazing life, Author Michael Spörke brings focus to the details and highlights of Thornton’s career, starting with her birth in Ariton, Alabama in 1926. One of six siblings, Thornton grew up with a minister father and a stay-at-home mother with serious health issues. She also suffered at the hands of her classmates, who relentlessly teased her for being so tall for her age. When her mother passed away, the thirteen year old couldn’t read or write much but she had learned to play the harmonica by watching her brother, C.W. Thornton.
At fourteen, she hit the road as a member of Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue, discovered singing while working on a garbage truck by another member of the Revue, Diamond Teeth Mary McClain. Life was marginally better but low pay meant Thornton had to work at other jobs like shining shoes to make ends meet. Still, traveling with Green gave her plenty of opportunities to hone her considerable vocal skills in addition to playing harmonica and drums.
In 1948, Thornton left the road to settle in Houston, TX. catching the eye of the infamous Don Robey, signing with his Peacock Records label. Several singles are released that fail to cause much of a stir. The arc of Thornton’s career changes once she meets Johnny Otis. Robey works out a deal with Otis to have Thornton join his Rhythm & Blues Caravan, giving her exposure all over the country. Sent out to open a show at the famous Apollo Theater, Thornton brought the curtain down and caused such a sensation that headliner Little Esther Phillips never got to perform.
Otis ended up playing drums for the recording of Big Mama’s big hit record, “Hound Dog”, which Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller wrote specifically for her. Her powerful voice and salty attitude were tailor-made for a song full of sexuality coupled with a “don’t mess with me” attitude. Now six feet tall and over three hundred pounds, few people would think of challenging Big Mama. “Hound Dog” made to the top of the charts. Thornton quickly started making more money while touring with stars like Junior Parker and Bobby Blue Bland. One tour included singer Johnny Ace who, despite warnings from Big Mama, kept playing around with his pistol until the night that ended with tragic consequences.
Spörke chronicles Thornton’s move to California where she creates a sensation with an appearance at the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival in addition to starting to record for Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records. Touring as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour, Thornton dazzles European audiences who are experiencing her live for the first time. The author dedicates several pages to outlining the impact these tours had on listeners and musicians, expressing the theory that they were instrumental in spearheading the blues revival on both continents. He also offers a brief discussion of the singer’s sexual preferences, which partially stem from Thornton often dressing
Thornton enjoyed much success through the 1960’s decade before changing times and serious alcohol dependency started to slow the demand from club owners and festival bookers. There were nights when she found inspiration, recalling her glory days with the latest backing band trying to keep up with her. Cancer could not lay her low, at least not for a few years despite a precipitous weight loss that left her a shadow of her former self.
The book is a labor of love for Spörke. He interviewed a number of people who knew Thornton or played with her, including Bernie Pearl, Doug MacLeod, and Lloyd Jones. He examines several facets of Thornton’s personality with a fair hand that assesses without passing judgment. The book also has a timeline of Thornton’s life, a discography, and a listing of TV and film appearances in addition to a strong selection of photos from the various stages of her career.
In summing up this excellent work, it is only fair to let Thornton have the final word. As stated in an interview with writer Ralph Gleason, “I learned to sing the blues by myself. My singing comes from experience…my own feelings. If I hear a blues I like, I try to sing it my own way. I don’t sing like nobody but myself. I like to put myself into whatever I’m doin’ so I can feel it.”