Big Mama Thornton - Vanguard Visionaries

Big Mama Thornton
Vanguard Visionaries


First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2008, Volume 15, #1

Written by Douglas Heselgrave

Thu January 31, 2008, 09:30 AM CST


Big Mama Thornton was a righteous performer, who was as brassy and bold as her name suggests. Though primarily known by music historians as the singer whose recordings of Hound Dog and Ball and Chain caught the attention of Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin, respectively, her actual legacy goes well beyond her original versions of these songs.

Willie Mae Thornton was born in 1926, and as the daughter of a minister, her musical career began in the Baptist church, where she and her six siblings began to sing from a very young age. She ran away from home at the age of 14 to pursue a career in secular music. She joined The Hot Harlem Revue and toured the southern states until she moved to Texas and started to perform on her own. She began her recording career working for Peacock ó a black music label based in Houston ó and she worked under the moniker of Big Mama Thornton, a name she was given due to her height of more than six feet and to her weight, which pushed upwards of 400 pounds.

Thornton was a great multi-instrumentalist, and her ability to belt out a tune granted her a ferocious stage presence. She scored her first hit with Hound Dog in 1953, and the song rested at the #1 spot on the R&B chart for seven weeks. She kept touring and playing in black clubs until the early 1960s when the popularity of a new brand of R&B music sounded the death knell for her raunchy style of blues.

Thornton continued to perform in concert whenever she could, though she suffered in obscurity until Janis Joplinís version of Ball and Chain rekindled interest in her trademark sound. This time, her audience was primarily young and white. She continued to record for Arhoolie, Mercury, and Vanguard until her health reached a point in the 1970s when she had to stop touring. Years of hard drinking and partying combined with her excessive weight took their toll, and she lived in quiet retirement until her death in 1984.

Thornton is a pivotal figure in music. It is a shame that her installment of the Vanguard Visionaries series doesnít do justice to her legacy. Though many of her greatest songs are presented in the discís meager 10 tracks, the versions that have been collected are not the original pressings that were recorded in the í40s and í50s. Instead, they are live cuts that were taken from her university and blues club tours of the 1970s. While Thorntonís voice is still in fine form, the arrangements are all wrong. Clearly, they were designed to recreate Janis Joplinís sound, and consequently, they arenít accurate representations of her own hits. The result is that Thornton sounds generic rather than incendiary.

By all means, Big Mama Thorntonís music deserves more attention than it has received, but Vanguard Visionaries provides a poor overview of her career. Like the other installments in the series, the set contains no liner notes, and it boasts merely 10 songs. It is a pitiful tribute to a tremendous artist. Her original recordings for Peacock are all available at a very reasonable price, and her concert set With the Muddy Waters Blues Band ó 1966 is also quite remarkable. In fact, nearly everything else she has on the market is better than this hastily compiled collection. starstar


Of Further Interest...

James Cotton - Vanguard Visionaries

Mississippi John Hurt - Vanguard Visionaries

Odetta - Vanguard Visionaries

Doc Watson - Vanguard Visionaries

Junior Wells - Vanguard Visionaries


Vanguard Visionaries is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!



1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


Copyright © 2008 The Music Box