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February 19, 2024 6:39 PM   Subscribe

Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters. Author Lynée Denise on the book's genesis: I saw this video of one of her performances from 1970 and I was like who the hell is this? Who is this woman commanding the room, commanding the band with all this dignity, all this ruthless inner peace?

Thornton is sometimes overlooked in music history, but her rendition of "Hound Dog" came first, and was a smash hit to boot. More happily “Ball and Chain” became one of Janis Joplin’s signature songs with Big Mama’s blessing, after Joplin encountered Thornton singing it in a Divisadero St club in San Francisco. Dubbed "Big Mama" for her size, Thornton had raised herself out of poverty, turning professional singer at the age of fourteen in 1940. [Previously on MeFi]

The Struggles and Triumphs of Bessie Jones, Big Mama Thornton, and Ethel Waters exhibit at the Oral History of American Music project at Yale University (link goes to the African American Studies Critical Guide).
posted by spamandkimchi (9 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
...oops, and my comment was about the video in the first link.

One of the most magnetic performances committed to film, I think. It never gets old.
posted by mykescipark at 6:45 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

I don't think I've every seen video footage of her - so thanks very much for sharing that. Wikipedia recounts that she left school to get a job cleaning spittoons when her mother died at 13, and that she was buried in a pauper's grave at 57 - but in between what a voice and what a presence! I like Swing it On Home.
posted by rongorongo at 4:46 AM on February 20

I'm not sure 'elemental' is the best word, but her presence is so powerful

earth, air, fire, water, producing this. thanks, this is really great. I was seeing a woman for about 2 years and among the marks she left was Thornton's "Hound Dog," she learned me that. I was not into Presley any more than anyone raised in a household where you'd hear the occasional tune on the radio, but when you hear Thornton it's bigger than music.
posted by elkevelvet at 7:42 AM on February 20

sadly, i only know her name because i watched that recent elvis movie and they showed a scene with him walking by a club she was singing hound dog in. and i thought her version was so much better than his. it's not a style of music i like generally, but i can appreciate it.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:36 PM on February 20

Although Willie Mae Thornton did have a hit with her rendition of Lieber & Stoller's "Hound Dog," Elvis Presley was introduced to the song through the Vegas act, Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys. Their arrangement of "Hound Dog" is how Elvis originally learned the song. To be frank, the Elvis version has elements of both Vegas and rockabilly, while Willie Mae Thornton's rendition is way more bluesy.
posted by jonp72 at 12:36 PM on February 20

Not super familiar with Thornton though I am certainly familiar with 'Ball & Chain' by listening to Janis Joplin in my teens. I watched both the video of Thornton from 1970 (linked at the top of the post) and then one or two of Janis performing. I was struck by two things:

- Thornton's presence on the stage is commanding. Clearly she wasn't just 'Big Mama' because of her size. I'd describe her vocal performance as lean and highly economical. She gets the point of the song across clearly and with little fuss.

- Joplin, OTOH, totally inhabits the song, body and soul and voice. Her performance demands we witness the pain of the singer, yet it didn't come across as overly dramatic or stagey.

I was reminded of the differences between performances of 'Hurt' by Reznor and Cash. Again, two great performers, but I can't help but feel one embodies the song more completely than the other.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 4:57 PM on February 20

The article about her above mentions her last filmed appearance in 1984 - singing Rooster Blues/Ball and Chain/Houndog while wearing a stetson and giant suit, and while blowing smoke rings at the audience.
posted by rongorongo at 9:25 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]

Mod note: [btw, this post has been added to the sidebar and Best Of blog!]
posted by taz (staff) at 2:31 AM on February 25

I'mglad to see the Yale exhibition includes Ethel Waters, who was amazing. I'll let Rhiannon Giddens explain.
posted by Paul Slade at 1:05 AM on March 2

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