There was so much interest last week in the not-so-well-known Arthur Crudup that I thought it might be equally cool to give a similar shout-out to Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton - a female blues artists you may not be familiar with and who preceded Elvis Presley’s version of ‘Hound Dog’ in the early fifties with a gutsy, bluesy and waaaaay more suggestive version of her own.
Of course Big Mama was not the only one to record this song, written by Leiber and Stoller. ‘Hound Dog’ has been recorded by dozens of artists over the years - but she was the first. Incidentally, a rock ‘n roll version was mildly popularized by Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys before Elvis released his and made it into the huge iconic hit we know today. (You’ll notice too that the Bell/Elvis version has completely different lyrics too – it’s a happy, wholesome, more sterile version and almost nonsensical, really.
Big Mama’s version is much more straightforward and shows no concern for rabbit-catching abilities or being a “friend o’mine.”)
If you haven’t heard Big Mama Thornton you owe it to yourself to do so right now. (See bottom of this page!) ‘Big Mama’ did not get this title randomly incidentally and she’s all about the swanky, sashaying full-on blues woman you might hope for. (Also - her hats are unspeakably cool!) Youtube also features an interesting version of ‘Hound Dog’ with Big Mama and a sleek and attentive Buddy Guy in tow. Basically, Big Mama Thornton could be Koko Taylor’s older, more street-wise cousin – her voice is gravelly, world-weary, rough but gently expressive. When she says “you made me weep and moan” there is just no reason to doubt her and the ad-libbing she ably supplies (entreating the back-up singers to yelp or on the Buddy Guy effort adding a sultry “Mmmm-hmmm, bow Wow to you too” at the end of the set) would make Mae West blush.
Big Mama was also a songwriter herself and played several instruments. She sang at the Monterey Jazz Festival in the sixties and went on to be paired up with many of the traditional blues greats such as B.B.King and Muddy Waters. Willie Mae Thornton passed away in 1984 at the age of 57.