The Thinning of Big Mama

By  |  February 15, 2017
“Big Mama,” by Cathey Miller, catheymiller.com “Big Mama,” by Cathey Miller, catheymiller.com

If you want to see “Big Mama” Thornton singing the blues in her prime, look up her performance of “Ball and Chain” with Buddy Guy and his band, filmed at Boston public television station WBGH’s studio in 1970, when she was forty-four. The occasion was a music show called “Mixed Bag.” Thornton is a mellow mountain of a woman, almost six feet tall and topping two hundred pounds. She dwarfs the men in the band, but they seem to respect her for her size, her dignity, her burden. As she sings, they keep a soulful Southern church cadence with their feet, side to side. Her voice is beautiful, but not pretty. 

Sittin’ by my window, whoa, I were looking out at the rain . . .

She is regal and dignified in the sturdy blue pin-striped suit of indeterminate gender that appears tailored just for her, with a paisley ascot, a black fur toque, and her beloved rhinestone chandelier earrings. She even wears the two scars on her brow like scythe-shaped jewels, and she is beautiful. But she is not pretty. She draws her power from some old reservoir of human authority beyond the usual repertoires of romantic pain common to blues chanteuses: Why you want to do this mean thing to me? Thornton makes it clear: she is not unacquainted with human suffering, but she has no intention of letting it get the upper hand. Instead, she does what all blues greats do: she telegraphs endurance and force to whomever out there in TV land might need it at the moment. This is blues perfection. This is what this song was supposed to sound like, before it became Janis Joplin’s signature anthem to existential dread. “Ball and Chain” is irrevocably Southern in spirit. 

When Big Mama sings that love can be like cold metal clamped onto a human heart, she raises both fists before her cheekbones. Those estimable fists, warding off trouble. She was known in the business as that “difficult Negro woman” who could, and would, familiarize your head with a heavyweight’s right hook if she thought you were holding on to her money too long after a performance. 

What harm could ever befall a woman as strong as Big Mama? You can almost believe it, that old pernicious American myth that a black woman like her, or Margaret Mitchell’s Mammy, or Faulkner’s Dilsey, or Hollywood’s black babysitter in the racist Little Audrey cartoons, is so innately strong that nobody much needs to look in on her from time to time and see to it that she is treated right. 

Big Mama’s life puts the lie to that myth.

 

Willie Mae Thornton was one of the crucial donors in the transfusion of black Southern blues into two separate veins of white rock & roll in America. Born in southern Alabama in 1926, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame the same year she died, in 1984. Although she could not read music, she was a respected colleague of Robert “Junior” Parker, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Clifton Chenier, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, B. B. King, Gatemouth Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Cotton—everybody who was anybluesbody. But Big Mama’s name comes up today mostly in discussions of two songs that tethered her to white rock & roll history. 

“Hound Dog” was her 1953 hit that a pair of nineteen-year-old white Jewish boys named Leiber and Stoller wrote especially for her. The song was love and lateral theft; they were looking to come up with a raunchy song for her rough style, reminiscent of the street-level bite coming out of Los Angeles barrios in songs like “Chinito, Chinito.” “Hound Dog” was the first moneymaker for Houston’s Peacock Records, the first independent black rhythm-and-blues recording outfit. “Hound Dog” was later sucked into the rockabilly turbines of the Elvis star-making machinery when Presley began his meteoric ascent into what would prove to be decades of American enchantment with Byronic burnouts in possession of guitars. Afterward, she sometimes blurred the story enough to imply that she had been robbed of royalties or authorial credit for the song when others recorded it. Consider her testimony about “Hound Dog” to a writer from Women’s Wear Daily in 1971, two days before she appeared on The Dick Cavett Show: 

I first saw some lines on a paper bag and I threw in a few hollers to make it go. I wish now I hadn’t. Everybody else got paid but I didn’t get mine. Sometimes I’ve gotten $50 for a whole week, singing, trying to make it. Sometimes you get the $50 . . . sometimes you didn’t . . . the man would run off with it. Now you got to go and fuss with your landlord, You’ll pay him next week. Maybe you’ll catch the man. They taken everything but my voice. 

“Hound Dog” even inspired a great short story by Alice Walker, “Nineteen Fifty-five,” in which Walker muses over what might have been, if we inhabited a just world. In the Walker story, the black singer who resembles Willie Mae Thornton gets the gift of a car from the white singer who takes possession of “her” song and is treated respectfully by him. She even acquires property and has a durable relationship with a good man. In the life we do inhabit, Big Mama bought her own car and appears neither to have owned property nor married. You already know how the blues life goes—she died of a heart attack, almost penniless, at the age of fifty-seven, and was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles County, sharing a small headstone with two strangers among the poor.

As late as 1966 Big Mama was telling Arhoolie Records producer and visionary Chris Strachwitz, “I just need a break.” In many ways, Strachwitz was her big break, because he recorded her at a time when she could have easily slipped into oblivion, and she was lucky to cross paths with someone who had consecrated his life to saving samples of the kind of American music that was being swept aside by its sometimes thankless child, rock & roll. Two years later, Big Mama’s own composition “Ball and Chain” had become one of Janis Joplin’s signature songs, with Big Mama’s blessing, after Joplin encountered Thornton singing it in the Both/And Club on Divisadero Street in San Francisco. “Ball and Chain” is often cited as a synaptic leap of blues across the racial divide to rock & roll in the Great American Love and Theft Machine, direct dharma transmission during the fabled “blues revival” of the late 1960s. 

Big Mama was one of the deacons of that revival, a beloved figure on the festival circuit, beginning with her appearance at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival in 1964, on into the odd mind-meld of the club scene in San Francisco. Those days seem to have been the busiest and happiest of Big Mama’s life, culminating in appearances at the Fillmore, at Carnegie Hall, and into the concert halls and teatros in the great cities of Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. Big Mama never needed Joplin’s imprimatur to be somebody; she was already somebody long before Joplin hitchhiked west out of Austin.

And yet, Big Mama failed to thrive in the new music scene, where white kids were fleeing the plenitude of middle-class suburbs the same way Big Mama’s age cohort had fled Jim Crow. There is ample evidence that her career was profoundly compromised by her alcoholism and her attitude. There is equally ample evidence that she encountered difficulties in navigating the shoals of what was supposed to be a brave new integrated American music scene. 

Presley never acknowledged any debt to Big Mama for his knockoff of “Hound Dog,” and she would recount an occasion when he declined to perform with her, likely out of consideration for his white Southern fan base. Over a decade later, Thornton did get songwriter credit and royalties from Joplin, who saw to it that Big Mama also benefited from Joplin’s success. Thornton outlived them both, partly by never having to contend with the perils of rock & roll success.

Thornton was, however, well acquainted with peril, too. She left school at age thirteen, when her mother died, and was soon plucked off a garbage truck in Montgomery by Diamond Teeth Mary, Bessie Smith’s half sister, who heard her singing. At age fourteen, Thornton was remanded into the care of Sammy Green of the Atlanta-based Hot Harlem Revue, who also ran brothels on the side. After a dispute over money, she left for Houston, the Eldorado Ballroom, and then the Bronze Peacock club, under the influence of Don Robey, the Peacock recording mastermind. Texas music promoter Angus Wynne remembers Robey as the kind of man capable of weaponizing a microphone stand to exact compliance from an artist. Amidst this hostile work environment, Big Mama witnessed the suicide of one of Robey’s artists, Johnny Ace, playing Russian roulette in a dressing room in 1954. When she had had enough of Robey’s ways, she went west to California, where life loosened up a little and people seemed to understand who she was. 

“Only the strong survive,” Big Mama used to say, always careful to distance herself from the dressing-room drugs of the music biz, even when her most reliable traveling companion seemed to be that fifth of Johnnie Walker she sometimes instructed her managers or sidemen to withhold from her, no matter what, until her set was over. Big Mama had raised herself out of poverty, living like an ascetic and a profligate at the same time, operating with a “boom or bust” personal economy, carrying wads of cash in her pockets, a snub-nosed pistol in her purse. She eschewed the use of banks and often drove herself to her gigs in her own Cadillac, sometimes cooking on a little butane stove she carried with her, sometimes selling food between performances—all perhaps a vestigial throwback to her Hot Harlem Revue days, a hedge against getting stranded anywhere if the management absconds with the money. 

She seems to have dwelt by necessity in the margins of prosperity and material success. Considering the successes of her many contemporaries and collaborators, as we listen to her music today and watch her own that soundstage in Boston, Big Mama’s story raises a persistent question: How could she flourish this way (however briefly) but ultimately fail to thrive?

 

One of the more intriguing, and startling, pieces of journalism ever printed about Big Mama Thornton appeared in the New York Times the first week of 1971, filed by an Australian critic named Craig McGregor. He had taken in “Blues Night” at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where Thornton appeared two acts before B. B. King. McGregor found King’s performance strangely deficient: “he plays undiluted blues for white kids at the Fillmore, but feeds his own people showbiz corn.” He theorized that Big Mama was “high, or loaded,” but found her high-voltage “virtuoso” set to be “what Janis was after and never got near.” McGregor then ventured an assessment of the industry’s stacked deck. In the American music syndicate, he wrote, racism was “a cruelly destructive acid” that sucked the oxygen out of black music, making black artists mistrust their own work and settle for stereotypes, foreshortening any room for growth. Though white rock was burgeoning into lucrative empires, black music was experiencing collateral damage as “the originators” like Big Mama gigged from town to town, festival to festival.

Take Big Mama Thornton. If she had anything like the opportunities or skillful management which inferior white artists get, she would never make the obvious mistakes she committed the other night. She would have a band of her own, for a start. And there would be half a dozen shrewd heads watching her performance, analyzing and criticizing it, polishing it . . . until she achieves the expertise she needs, she probably won’t make that crucial breakthrough and will remain just another black singer whose music is ripped off by white imitators who have the necessary money and time, and (to be fair) the taste to realize the music they borrow is better than their own.

McGregor had seen the future of rock & roll, and it was going to exact a near-eclipse of black blues. His prescience about Thornton’s own career is all the more poignant when we look back at it now. Toward the last years of her life, Big Mama’s representation dwindled down to an inexperienced former boxer (and, some say, boyfriend), and after that, Link Wyler, a member of the film crew of the TV series Gunsmoke, and at the end, her younger sister Mattie Fields. In her last years, Big Mama sometimes got stranded on the road in cities like Buffalo, waiting for the next little wave of cash to bear her home to California.

If you want to know how hard Big Mama worked in her lifetime, read Michael Spörke’s 2014 biography Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music, a methodical labor of love that lists what seems like every gig and session in Big Mama’s surprisingly solid career and includes fascinating interviews with some of the white sidemen who put up with her volatile personality just for the honor of playing with her. Whether out of respect for her privacy or out of prudishness, Spörke shies away from any consideration of Big Mama’s sexuality or the son she gave birth to and relinquished. 

Chris Strachwitz and Ralph Gleason pronounced Big Mama Thornton the “greatest living” blues singer during the short-lived blues revival of the 1960s, but ethnomusicologists today place her in an additional niche. One of the most elegant assessments of Big Mama Thornton’s importance has come in recent years from Maureen Mahon, a cultural anthropologist at New York University and a specialist in the racialization of rock music. Mahon believes Big Mama Thornton was a “transgressor par excellence” and a “textbook example of rock-and-roll attitude.” In her plaid lumberjack shirts and smart co-opting of menswear style in the 1960s, Big Mama was a pioneer. She sang many of the same blues songs as Etta James and Sugar Pie DeSanto, in their chiffon dresses and high heels—but forward and in sensible shoes. In that way Big Mama Thornton was an early forerunner of power-based performers like Annie Lennox, Chrissie Hynde, Melissa Etheridge, Missy Elliott, and others. 

  

About three months before she died in 1984, a very gaunt but spirited Big Mama was filmed performing at a Los Angeles nightclub. “Rooster Blues” is a harrowing watch, if you understand that, though she may look eighty, Big Mama is only fifty-seven. And if you know about her “medicine” regimens of cream and brandy, or grapefruit juice with gin. There’d been a lot of water under the bridge since 1971, when Women’s Wear Daily had run a sweet valentine on her love and theft of men’s clothing styles. In the performance, her thin body is now dwarfed inside a cavernous men’s suit, as if she has recently happened upon some of Howlin’ Wolf’s hand-me-downs at an undertaker’s garage sale. She ambles gamely onto the stage with spindly shanks, a lit cig in one hand and a harmonica in the other, wearing a Stetson hat that has seen better days. She seems grateful for the chair she sits down on. 

How can this wraith be Big Mama Thornton? Ain’t nothin’ big here but the suit and that hat.

Big Mama blows some kisses to the crowd, blows some harmonica that is hardly high-voltage. The band nonetheless scrambles to keep up, deferential. Safe bet: these musicians are probably praying to God she will not lapse into the old vaudeville bit where she fires everybody but the piano player mid-song and takes over the drummer’s job herself. (That used to confuse the hell out of the white-boy sidemen back in the days when she shared billing with the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Jefferson Airplane.) When the band segues into a chord that sounds vaguely familiar, Big Mama’s face softens, basking under the spot like she is warming herself in the sun. The little crowd in the club loves her, unfazed by her frailty. Outside those walls, over the American airwaves, Tina Turner and Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie and the Pointer Sisters have assimilated seamlessly into the same zeitgeist where Van Halen sings “Jump” and the Eurythmics croon “here comes the rain again,” with Annie Lennox in her gender-bending clothes. 

“And now,” Big Mama says with slow authority and the little phonetic tell that she was taken from school too soon, “we would like to get down to duh earf. I’m gonna do this for you . . . a song I wrote, ‘Ball and Chain,’ in my own way.” You wonder, seeing this, who let her perform in this condition? Who was taking care of her? She held the deed to some profoundly important blues real estate, but how had she come to this? Big Mama’s West Coast fans have turned up in their smart disco clothes, needing a drink of clear water from a deep well.

Her voice is thin, thin like she has already made her way to higher altitudes than earth, and her breath is too shallow to belt it out like she did in her chandelier-earbob days: Sittin’ by my window, lookin’ out at the rain . . . you know something struck me, clamped on, clamped on like a ball and chain. With three months left to live, her delivery of the song is softer, wilier, as if she is addressing errant children instead of cruel lovers: You know I love you, honey, but Big Mama . . . Big Mama tired of bein’ in misery.


“Black Rat” by Big Mama Thornton with Muddy Waters Blues Band is Track 10 on the Visions of the Blues Southern Music Issue CD.

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Cynthia Shearer is the author of two works of fiction, The Wonder Book of the Air  and The Celestial Jukebox. Her work has appeared in such publications as TriQuarterly, The Missouri Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review.  Formerly a curator of William Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi, she now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and teaches at Texas Christian University.

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