Willie Mae Thornton (1926–1984) earned her name “Big Mama” for her big stage presence and even bigger voice. Born in Alabama, she spent her early years singing in church with her six siblings. She worked in a tavern until “Diamond Teeth” Mary McClain took her under her wing and put her on stage with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue, where she performed for seven years and garnered a reputation for being a talented singer, songwriter, drummer and harmonica player. She signed her first record deal with Peacock Records in 1952. It was here that she recorded the song ‘Hound Dog’, which shot to the top of the R & B charts, but was overshadowed in the public eye by Elvis Presley’s 1956 version. She joined the Arhoolie label in the 1960s, and recorded many songs with them, including the title track of her album, Ball and Chain, which became Janis Joplin’s breakthrough when she re-recorded it.
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