“My singing comes from my experience…My own experience. I never had no one teach me nothin’. I never went to school for music or nothin’. I taught myself to sing and to blow harmonica and even to play drums by watchin’ other people! I can’t read music, but I know what I’m singing! I don’t sing like nobody but myself.”
For March, Women In Rock is planning on putting together a playlist of men covering songs written by women. As I was brainstorming ideas, I thought of “Hound Dog.” I think most people know this song as done by Elvis. I think fewer know that it was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1952 for the Peacock label. I wondered if it was too much of a hit. I then wondered if it counted as song written by a woman. Technically it was written by Leiber and Stoller and was the first session that they produced. (For those that don’t know, Lieber and Stoller went on to write and produce for The Coasters and were associated with the famous Brill Building.) This aspect of authorship puts the song into question. Still it’s interesting to note Elvis’s choice of early singles. His first single deliberately subverted notions of race during segregation. “That’s Allright Mama” was a rhythm and blues hit for Arthur Crudup. “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was a bluegrass hit for Bill Monroe. DJ’s were originally kept uncertain of Elvis’s race and the single was designed to appeal to both black and white markets at a time when the record business, billboard charts and music industry were segregated. Elvis’s persona also subverted gender roles. He dressed in pastel pinks and greens. There was a certain homosexual eroticism in the subtext of Leiber and Stoller’s “Jailhouse Rock.” That’s what makes his choice of “Hounddog” seem significant. While the song was written by men, it was hit for a black women whose persona also subverted notions of race and gender.
I think the world has heard Elvis enough already. I’d rather you listen to Big Mama’s version. There’s a follow up song by Rufus Thomas (Father of both “The Funky Chicken” and Carla Thomas who had her own soul career and dueted with Otis Redding) called “Bear Cat.” Rufus borrows his style from Big Mama, but we also get the sense that he’s a little nervous as he talks back to such a headstrong woman.
Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton was a blues singer, harmonica player and drummer. She was born in Alabama in 1926. Her father was a minister and her mother sang in church. Big Mama’s first influences were gospel and she began singing as a child. In 1940 she joined a travelling blues show and was billed as “The New Bessie Smith.” During these early touring years she taught herself to play harmonica and drums by watching the other performers. She had a huge, powerful voice. She could sing pretty, but focused on creating a guttural growl. In 1948 she moved to Houston and played in bands with Johnny Ace and Johnny Otis. She got her nickname from the owner of the Apollo. She also witnessed Johnny Ace kill himself playing Russian Roulette backstage at a Houston club on Christmas Day, 1954.
Big Mama’s nickname came from her physical size as well as the size of her personality and the strength of her vocals. While other singers were slim chanteuses, she was boisterous, raunchy and clearly in charge. Her performance style was improvisational and she drove the band. She was directly sexual without any coyness. There was no “Touched like a virgin” or “Oops I did it again” in her gritty delivery. In the 1960’s she cut records and played festivals with The Muddy Waters’s Band and like Muddy she got her mojo working and held her own on stage. In her theme song she boasts, “They call me Big Mama and I weigh three hundred pounds/ I can rock you, I can roll you/ I can really get it on.” She celebrated her body and was nobody’s victim. She often dressed in men’s clothes and was openly gay. This caused controversy when she performed in blues revivals in the seventies and eighties.It also got her celebrated my feminist scholars as a transgendered outlaw.
While Big Mama didn’t write “Hound Dog,” she did pen many of her own songs. In 1961 she wrote “Ball and Chain.” Like “Hound Dog,” “Ball and Chain” got more attention when it was covered by a white artist.
Janis Joplin’s importance as a woman in rock is encapsulated in her performance of “Ball and Chain” as heard on Big Brother’s Cheap Thrills and documented in Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop. Joplin’s vocal style and her presentation were both influenced by Big Mama. Joplin adopted the vocal rawness, the toughness, but also the insistence that she was sexy despite her lack of makeup, acne scars and tousled hair, just as Big Mama insisted she was sexy despite her size. Joplin got her start playing acoustic blues in coffee houses in Texas. She was a blues scholar and well aware of the female blues tradition. She saw herself as part of lineage that began with Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie. She covered songs by both in her early folkie days. Joplin was well aware of the influence of these women on Big Mama Thornton and when Joplin moved to San Francisco and joined Big Brother and the Holding Company, I think she deliberately chose “Ball and Chain” as a way to tie her acid rock take on blues to the female blues tradition and her Texas roots.
Thornton died at the age of 57 due to heart and liver damage caused by a lifetime of heavy drinking. In the last years of her life she suffered a dramatic weight loss dropping from 350 to a mere hundred pounds. She lived life by her own terms and without compromise. Her legacy lives on.
So that’s enough talkin.’ It’s time for rockin.’ Check out the 1965 version of Hound Dog/Down Home Shakedown by Big Mama on YouTube. Dig her flannel work shirt and matching pork pie hat. Watch her control the lead guitarist with her mojo. Revel in her harp off with John Lee Hooker.She’s kicking ass and taking names! “AAAAAWWWW GET IT! GET It!”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxoGvBQtjpM