It is not often that I run across a blues musician with a big voice, big talent, and a vibrant strong stage presence. While searching YouTube for juke joint music from the Delta I came across Big Mamma Thornton and fell in love with her sound. The first note that came from her went deep into my soul calling to the “black-women-hardships-blues-sistah” in me. I could feel the dirt roads of Alabama, the deep woods of the southern hills, old gospel mountain churches, and the sounds of backs cracking from the weight of sharecropped cotton. Her music touched the negro in me that was still aching to sing the blues of the south through the cornbread vocals of our appointed messenger from our broken people. She lived,sang and created, and walked out in her life, the blues.
Willie Mae “Big Mamma” Thornton was born in Ariton, Alabama in 1926. The daughter of a minister. She grew up in and around gospel music. She began singing at the age of six. From Montgomery, Alabama to Houston Texas, to San Francisco, California, where she settled her music became her life and a gift to the world. She played with all the greats: Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Johnny Lee Hooker, and Dr. Ross to name a few. She is a blues legend. Her famous song Hounddog was sung by Jill Scott in the 2007 movie Hound Dog. I didn’t like the movie that much, but the music by Jill Scott stole the movie in my opinion. The song was stolen by other artists whose names I won’t mention. Big Mamma Thornton first recorded it in 1952. She was a songwriter and a great self taught musician.
Her round vibrant voice and bold harmonica style captivates your ears on every note. Her voice is full from the soul up. Hearing her sing brings your life to attention. She is a story teller with words and deep emotions. I have not found a female blues vocalist yet that I can honestly say can match her authoritative brassy, bold style. I am still looking. When I listen to her music I feel as if her songs are things I wish I could say If I could sing the blues. She died of a heart attack in 1984, but her music lives on. That is the framework of being a legend in my eyes. Check out the videos of her performances. Turn up the volume , lean back, and listen with your soul. She will awake a truth in you that comes from a life that was steeped in blues and hard living. Big Mamma Thornton is that aunt we all have had in our lives, who tells it like it is. She is the queen of blues! She sang the gospel! Big Mamma Thornton gave us all she had and more.
“All around I felt it, all I could see was the rain. Something grabbed a hold of me, honey felt to me honey like, lord, a ball and chain.”
And…. if you have time a blues treat!