Our top 10 Big Mama Thornton Songs presents the best Big Mama Thornton Songs like “Hound Dog,” “Ball ‘n’ Chain,” “Yes, Baby,” and many more. Born as Willie Mae Thornton on December 11, 1926, in Ariton, Alabama, the artist better known as Big Mama Thornton became an American R&B icon thanks to her 1952 recording of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s “Hound Dog.” In addition to the song that was covered by Elvis Presley which also turned him into an icon, Big Mama was also the original vocal talent behind 1953’s “Ball and Chain.” Not only was she the first to perform the song but it was she who wrote it.
While growing up, Willie Mae Thornton’s father was a minister in a Baptist church and her mother was a singer. She, along with her six siblings, was first introduced to gospel music. After the kids lost their mother, she dropped out of school when she was fourteen years old so she could get a job working as a cleaner in a local tavern Soon after, she left home and joined Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue. It didn’t take long before she was billed the New Bessie Smith as she adopted her brand of rhythm and blues music as part of her own repertoire. She, along with Memphis Minnie, was Willie Mae Thornton’s inspiring favorite.
Becoming Big Mama
Willie Mae Thornton’s career began to flourish once she moved to Houston, Texas in 1948. The state’s brand of blues was new and popular that made an impact as far west as Los Angeles, California. The brass horn arrangement, plus the jumpy rhythms and witty lyrics, made this style of music a welcomed favorite by an audience who found themselves drawn to it.
After Thornton signed a contract with Peacock Records in 1951, she performed at the Apollo Theater in 1952. This is where she worked with another artist from the same label, Johnny Otis. While there, she recorded “Hound Dog” as the first song produced by the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The growling performance laid out by Big Mama Thornton was exactly what the songwriters hoped for. Otis was the drummer who was featured in this groundbreaking recording. According to many rock and roll music historians, “Hound Dog” was the song that officially started it all.
It’s a Dog’s World
When Elvis Presley covered his own version of “Hound Dog” three years after Thornton’s release of the single. For Leiber, he was unimpressed by Presley’s version as his performance made actual references to a rabbit and a dog as part of his material. The song was originally meant to serve as a woman confronting a two-timing man. Presley’s own success with “Hound Dog” sold over ten million copies but still has most fans unaware that his version drowned out the fact the song was actually about a womanizing freeloader.
In the early 1960s, when “Ball ‘n’ Chain” was first recorded, Big Mama Thornton was signed with Bay-Tone Records. However, the label decided they didn’t care to release the song. They also didn’t own the copyright. As a result, Thornton missed out on the publishing royalties as Janis Joplin’s recording would be the first to be released in 1968. At the time, Joplin was with Big Brother & The Holding Company. Apparently, Thornton didn’t have a problem with this as she stated in a 1972 interview that she gave Joplin permission to record the song and receive the royalties for it.
When Big Mama Thornton’s recording career began to fade in the late 1950s, she relocated to San Fransisco, California. While there she played in a number of the city’s clubs, as well as in Los Angeles. She was part of the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival that took place in Europe. She was among the few female blues singers at the time that stood out as a favorite that extended beyond North American borders.
This tour took place not long after Thornton witnessed the accidental shooting of Johnny Ace, a fellow performer from the Peacock label. According to Thornton, the gun was playfully aimed at his own girlfriend and another woman before pointing it at himself. When he pulled the trigger the bullet hit him in the side of the head. Her testimony differed from the claim he was playing Russian Roulette but it did confirm Johnny Ace made an assumption about his own gun that proved to be a mistake that would claim his life.
In 1966 and 1968, Big Mama Thornton was part of the lineup at the Monterey Jazz Festival. 1966’s Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band was an Arhoolie label production that had these two artists collaborate together. After this, it was 1968’s Ball ‘n’ Chain. In between was Jani Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company as they performed their version of “Ball ‘n’ Chain” at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1967. When Joplin’s song was released, it revived Thornton’s own career which would finally have her original recording of the same song released.
Stronger Than Dirt
In 1969, Big Mama Thornton signed a recording contract with Mercury Records. Through them, Stronger Than Dirt became the blues singer’s most successful album. While with Pentagram Records, Thornton was able to merge her talent as a blues talent with gospel artists such as the Dixie Hummingbirds. Despite enjoying a successful career as a blues singer, deep down Thornton wanted to make her own gospel album. She was able to achieve this with Saved, which was a 1971 release featuring a handful of classics such as “Oh, Happy Day” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
By this time, the revival of the American blues ran its course. In 1972, Big Mama Thornton accepted the invitation to join the American Folks Blues Festival’s European tour again. In 1973, she accompanied B.B. King, Eddie Vinson, and Muddy Waters as a performer at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Big Mama Thornton’s Legacy
As a recording artist, Big Mama Thornton continued until 1975. Jail and Sassy Mama were her two final recordings. Unfortunately for Thornton, years of alcohol abuse were taking a toll on the woman that would send her to an early grave. At fifty-seven years old, Big Mama Thornton was found dead on July 25, 1984. It was determined the cause of death was related to heart and liver disorders as her weight took a quick nosedive from 450 pounds to under one hundred pounds.
It was also in 1984 that she would be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Thornton’s “Ball ‘n’ Chain” became one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. According to many critics, there was an argument Thornton’s lack of recognition for that song, as well as “Hound Dog” was due to the racial segregation that took place in the US.
In total, there are ten albums to Big Mama Thornton’s credit. Five of them were studio recordings while three of them were compilation albums. 1975’s Jail and Sassy Mama were live performances. As a performer, she had greater appeal on the R&B circuit due to her trademark growl and clean, powerful vocals. In 2020, she was also inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
Top 10 Big Mama Thornton Songs
#10 – Yes, Baby (featuring Johnny Ace)
In 1954, Big Mama Thornton and Johnny Ace recorded the duet “Yes, Baby’ while they were both signed to Peacock Records. The back-and-forth exchange between Ace and Thornton was considered risque at the time but was right on the mark. The two were on tour together when Johnny Ace toyed with his gun and accidentally shot himself. It was an event that scarred Thornton for life as she was present when the tragedy happened.
#9 – Partnership Blues
Recorded in 1951, “Partnership Blues” was a strong and jazzy tune that featured Big Mama Thornton singing about an extramarital affair. Singing as the other woman, this was the robust vocalist’s first official recording. Backed by a big band performance and solo guitar, the power of Thornton’s vocal talent was what gave her the Big Mama monicker.
#8 – I Smell a Rat
Recorded and released in 1954, “I Smell a Rat” was a song performed by Big Mama Thornton as a narrator that confronted her love interest. The power behind Thornton’s voice was undeniable. Among the fans who paid attention and had a thing for blues music, they loved it. This was another song that also featured Johnny Otis and his band performing the heavy-hitting instrumental genius that seemed to serve as yet another song ahead of its time as a classic.
#7 – Jail
It was believed what triggered Big Mama Thornton’s alcoholism was the lack of recognition she received as a singer and songwriter. “Hound Dog” and “Ball ‘n’ Chain” were her two signature singles that defined who she was as a talent. Unfortunately, this was not the case as circumstances beyond her control served as major blocks to the woman’s career that started off with so much promise. “Jail” was a song that started out as a heartwrenching reality her life wasn’t about to get any easier.
Her health was deteriorating at the time and she was in the middle of recovery from an automobile accident. “Jail” was a song that served as the title track for one of her final albums. While she was performing live at a series of Northwest prison sites in the US, the songs were recorded and compiled into this album.
#6 – Go Down Moses
As a Christian, Big Mama Thornton’s musical upbringing had her exposed to gospel music. As a recording artist, it was a desire to create her own album as her own mother was also a singer. Saved was one of the best albums she ever recorded. Released in 1969, “Go Down Moses” was a song that made reference to the Holy Bible’s Moses as he pleaded with the Egyptians to let him and his fellow Hebrews go and it was believed to serve as a spiritual song. However, this was supposedly written in 1861, at least according to the Library of Congress, and it was sung by the Slaves of Virginia for nine years. According to some historians, this song was already sung for at least twenty years prior to that.
“Go Down Moses” was published for the first time in 1862 and was attributed to The Contrabands, who were escaped slaves that joined the Union Army. It’s believed this song was originally performed as a rallying cry while the American Civil War took place. One of the earliest recordings of this song came from a vocal quartet from the Tuskegee Institute in 1914. The first to make “Go Down Moses” popular was Paul Robeson in 1953. Since then, it became a jazz standard and was further popularized in 1958 after Louis Armstrong performed it as an uptown tempo.
#5 – Black Rat
Recorded in 1966, “Black Rat” was a song that Big Mama Thornton performed while she lived in San Francisco, California. At the time, the genre of rhythm and blues took a back seat while the explosion of rock and roll took center stage. It would be at this time Thornton’s involvement with the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival that would serve as a comeback, at least in England. This inspired the album, Big Mama Thornton – In Europe, as well as Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band. “Black Rat” demonstrated Thornton’s vocal range for the magnificent wonder it is and is one of those bluesy gems that’s worth listening to.
#4 – They Call Me Big Mama
“They Call Me Big Mama” was a song Thornton wrote and recorded herself as a self-proclamation of who she was. This was featured on the B side of the same record that produced “Hound Dog” in 1952. The blues vocalist earned the Big Mama Thornton name due to her physical frame and powerful singing voice.
#3 – Wade in the Water
From the album, Ball and Chain, “Wade in the Water” was a 1968 release that made references to hound dogs. Was it a musical stab against “Hound Dog” as that song made references to a two-timing man? The song was actually making reference to the underground railroad movement with a gospel meets hard rock approach. As a performer who was contending with racial segregation issues herself, Big Mama Thornton often performed musical material that revolved around slavery.
This was a heavy-hitting song that had Big Mama Thornton wail out while the guitar solo performed by Bee Houston played on with just as much ferocity. According to some critics, this was a song that was ahead of its time as it was heavier than most of the music that was being released at the time. It was a far cry from the bluesy numbers she was better known for.
#2- Ball ‘n’ Chain
Before Janis Joplin, “Ball ‘n’ Chain” was Big Mama Thornton’s original creation and recording as a song. In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s Thornton’s version that’s recognized as among the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. It was the song that shaped Janis Joplin’s career and she knew it. This was obvious when Janis Joplin, gave Thornton full recognition for it. According to Janis Joplin, she heard “Ball ‘n’ Chain” for the first time when Thornton performed it at a bar in San Fransisco.
Thornton wrote and recorded this song in 1961 while she was signed to the label, Bay-Tone Records. It made the decision not to release the recording yet still held the copyright. Because of this, Thornton was not able to collect the publishing royalties for it. When Arhoolie Records released Thornton’s recording in 1968, it was titled “Ball and Chain.” There was also an edited version designed as a single called, “Ball and Chain Part 1.”
#1 – Hound Dog
While Elvis Presley made “Hound Dog” an all-time classic, the first to officially record this tune was Big Mama Thornton. Written by the Lieber and Stoller team, “Hound Dog” became a staple song that would make an everlasting impression upon a global audience. For Thornton, it was her biggest hit as it peaked on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart after it was released as a single in 1952.
Her version sold over two million copies and was regarded as an important beginning to the rock and roll genre. The guitar in the song was used as the key instrument. Even today, aspiring guitarists reference “Hound Dog” as a challenge to hone in on their skills with hopes to become the next Jimi Hendrix.
Feature Photo: Barbara Weinberg Barefield, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Top 10 Big Mama Thornton Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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