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Big Mama Thornton Read by Krystal Ramseur

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was a Black American blues singer with a unique style and a powerful voice. She helped shape rock and roll as we know it today.

Get to Know Krystal Ramseur

Get to know Krystal Ramseur who read us the story of Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Hear about Krystal’s work with the National Council of Negro Women and in improvisational comedy. Krystal also shares how she identifies with Big Mama Thornton in their shared efforts to be true to themselves.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Deborah Goldstein with sound design and mixing by Reel Audiobooks. It was written by Apryl Lee and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Krystal Ramseur. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producers are Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Once upon a time, there was a girl with a voice so big and powerful she didn’t even need a microphone when she sang the blues. Her name was Willie Mae.
The year was 1952. Willie Mae, dressed in a button down shirt and bolo tie, was in the recording studio, about to record a fresh new song written especially for her. When the band began to play, Willie Mae let the chords brew inside her until she couldn’t hold back any longer. Then, she belted out her lyrics with a fierce and mighty sound that shook the walls around her and seemed to crack open the sky.
The song was called “Hound Dog” and it would forever change the world of music.
I’m Krystal Ramseur. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.

On this episode, “Big Mama” Thornton, a Black American blues singer with a mighty voice and a fierce rebel spirit.
Willie Mae Thornton was born on December 11th, 1926, in a small town called Ariton [AIR-ih-tin}, Alabama. She loved walking down the dusty roads to the general store, passing by horses pulling wagons, and waving to the train as it chugged by.
Willie Mae’s father, George, was a Baptist minister. So when Willie Mae and her five older siblings weren’t in school, they were often at church. Willie Mae gazed up at her mother, Mattie, singing in the choir. There was something magical about this place. The entire congregation felt alive whenever they were sharing a song.

Life was not easy in Alabama though. Around that time, a Great Depression swept across the country. Many people lost their jobs and struggled to put food on the table. Some lost their homes. Things were especially tough for Black people in America, like Willie Mae and her family. There was widespread racism and Black people were often the first workers to be fired from jobs or excluded from government resources and benefits.Standing in that crowded church on those hot Alabama Sundays, Willie Mae didn’t sing along too much, but she listened carefully. She saw how those gospel songs transformed everything around her. They gave people hope even in the most difficult times. Music had a power Willie Mae could feel deep down in her bones.

When Willie Mae was thirteen, her mother died of tuberculosis. Not only was Willie Mae crushed with grief, but now her family was desperate without her mother’s income. So, Willie Mae had to quit school to find a job, which was not easy to do. She did manage to get hired at a local saloon though. She would be cleaning…and learning a lot.See, while she was at the saloon, Willie Mae got to hear people performing fabulous music. Blues music. Just like those spiritual songs Willie Mae heard in church, blues was full of emotion that told stories of the troubles of everyday life for Black people.
Willie Mae listened and learned those songs by heart. The songs of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. She even taught herself to play along on the harmonica.
One night, the saloon’s regular singer couldn’t perform. Willie Mae offered to step in. The saloon owner looked at her in disbelief. She was only thirteen, after all. She’d never even taken a music lesson. But Willie Mae was determined — she’d been watching and learning all on her own, and she was confident she knew what she was doing.

She stepped up, took a deep breath, and started to sing. The crowd fell silent. Or maybe it was just that Willie Mae couldn’t hear anything else besides the notes rising up from inside her. She opened up her mouth and let out such a deep, soulful voice. It was like she’d been singing her entire life.

​​People took notice and Willie Mae started to gain a following. Soon, she auditioned for Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Review, a traveling show that featured singers, dancers, and comedians. She won a spot in the show and toured the south singing, playing the harmonica and even the drums.
As Willie Mae grew up, so did her presence on stage. Soon, she was larger than life, six feet tall and two-hundred pounds, with a fabulous sense of style. Sometimes she was decked out in a blazer and tie, which was very unusual for women in those days. But what was truly stunning was her voice. It was bold and blustery, commanding attention. The audience always broke into cheers and applause when she was finished.
And yet, Willie Mae wasn’t paid much money. Sometimes, after a show, she’d have to go to an all-night diner and sit at a booth just to have a warm place to stay for the night. Finally, in 1948, after weeks of not receiving even the little money she was owed for her performances, she’d had enough. She quit the Hot Harlem Revue and moved to Houston, Texas to make it on her own. She’d heard there was an exciting blues scene in Houston, and was determined to become a part of it.
Soon after Willie Mae moved to Houston, she met Don Robey, the owner of a famous Black-owned R&B company called Peacock Records. He’d heard her perform and was fascinated by her sound. He offered her a recording contract, which was a huge deal for a young Black woman at that time.

Willie Mae became a regular performer at clubs around Houston. She had to work a second job shining shoes just to have enough money for food and rent. But at least she had a way to keep making music. For Willie Mae, music was much more valuable than money.
Then, in 1952, songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote a song just for Willie Mae — it was called “Hound Dog.”
Willie Mae got dressed up in her button down shirt and bolo tie, and marched into the recording studio like she owned the place. As they started rehearsing, the songwriters had an idea about how they thought Wille Mae should sing the lyrics. “Do you think you could growl this song?” they asked.
Willie Mae looked the two songwriters up and down, then settled on their eyes. “Don’t tell me how to sing no song,” she told them with a grin.
The guitar player started in with a smooth run, introducing the rhythm and tone. Then, as the drum beat started, she unleashed a guttural howl and launched into the lyrics.

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog!
Been snoopin’ ’round my door.”
She wasn’t just singing. She was feeling it all; digging up those words from somewhere deep inside. Her voice was full of grit and personality. She was telling the story of a woman standing up for herself after being mistreated and dismissed. In many ways, it was a story about her life.
After Willie Mae recorded “Hound Dog,” she got back on the road and headed to New York City, where she sang at the legendary Apollo Theatre. The audience was so impressed with her, that the rest of the performers who were supposed to go after her never got onstage. The manager of the theater said she was destined for stardom and gave her the nickname Big Mama, which she loved. It wasn’t just about her physical size. She had a full voice, an enormous presence, and she was becoming a huge success.

In fact, when “Hound Dog” was released the following year, DJs played it on the radio all over the country and Big Mama shot straight to number one on the Billboard R&B charts, where she stayed for seven weeks!
Even with her new fame, Big Mama still faced discrimination. In many places in the 1950s, theaters were segregated. So, Big Mama had to play separate shows for Black and white audiences. It was very upsetting to her, because she just wanted to share her music with everyone.

Big Mama also didn’t get a lot of the credit and praise that she deserved. In those days, women made a lot less money than men, and Black artists were only paid for their recording sessions, while white artists also made money from record sales.

Soon after Big Mama recorded her amazing rendition of “Hound Dog”, a young white artist named Elvis Presley released his own version of the song. It was a smash hit and made him millions of dollars. It wasn’t long before people started calling him the “king of rock n roll.”

Meanwhile, Big Mama was never paid more than 500 dollars for her recording, and when her contract with Peacock records ended, they let her go. But Big Mama wasn’t intimidated. Even though rock and roll was taking over the airwaves and concert halls, she kept singing the soulful blues that meant the most to her. And when blues made a comeback in the mid-1960s, she was in the center of it all. She toured and performed, recording new hits and even an album full of gospel songs she’d heard her mother sing in church.
Big Mama Thornton was never afraid to be her truest self: large, loud, and full of passion. She challenged what it meant to be a woman in the 1950s and a Black American in a segregated country. And even though she didn’t get the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, she refused to compromise. She stayed true to her roots and the music that first filled her with courage and hope.

She saw how music had the power to transform anyone’s life and she made it her mission to share that gift with the world.