Nicknamed Big Mama for both her size and her dynamic voice, blues legend Willie Mae Thornton grew up singing in the choir in her father’s church near Montgomery, Ala. She won a singing contest in 1941 at age 15 and attracted the attention of Atlanta music promoter Sammy Green, who signed her for his Hot Harlem Review.
After touring with the show for seven years, Thornton moved to Houston in 1948 and is credited with contributing to the unique Texas blues style. Two of her successful early recordings, “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain,” became huge hits for Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin in later years.
Thornton spent most of the 1950s touring African-American clubs and concert halls throughout the Southern and Eastern U.S. She played such storied venues as New York City’s Cotton Club and Apollo Theater. One writer described her style as “rough and beautiful and crazy.” She relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s, where she performed at jazz festivals and continued her successful recording career with several different labels.
This month, KUT is partnering with the Ruthe Winegarten Foundation to celebrate Women's History Month. Every day, we'll bring you a short feature spotlighting a historic woman, movement, or group of women in Texas.