Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Under the Covers

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (1926-1984)
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (1926-1984)

We mark the death on July 25, 1984 – 38 years ago today – of the American Rhythm and Blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton.  Born on December 11, 1926, she died in Los Angeles of both heart and liver disease brought on by alcohol abuse.  According to Gillian Gaar, writing in She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll (Seal Press, 1992), during the brief period of her final illness, Thornton went from 450 pounds (Big Momma!) to 95 pounds, a weight loss of some 355 pounds.

Thornton scored her one-and-only hit when, on August 13, 1952, she recorded a brand-new, 12-bar blues song by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller entitled Hound Dog.  

Released by Peacock Records in February 1953, Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog sold over 500,000 copies and spent fourteen weeks on the Rhythm and Blues charts, seven of those fourteen weeks at number one.  Thornton’s recording is linked below:

(By the way: please ignore the photo of Josephine Baker at the top of the link; Big Momma’s left leg was bigger than all of Madame Baker.)

Thornton’s recording of Hound Dog was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2013 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lists it as one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.”

For our information, Big Mamma Thornton made a total of $100 from the recording.

Since Thornton made that first recording, Hound Dog has been recorded over 250 times.  But by far the best-known version was recorded in July 1956 by the King himself, Elvis Presley (1935-1977).  Presley’s version of Hound Dog sold over 10 million copies across the globe, making it Elvis’ best-selling record and one of the best-selling records of all time.  In 1956, it sat at number one on Billboard magazine’s pop chart for 11 consecutive weeks, a record that stood for 36 years: until 1992-1993, when Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You spent 14 weeks at number one.…

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