Willie Mae Thornton, known popularly as "Big Mama," was not only a successful singer/songwriter in her own time, but a major influential voice in the development of American popular music with her original version of "Hound Dog."
She herself was influenced by the famous blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s like Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Ma Rainey. She was a popular performer famous for exuberant shows. "Her booming voice, sometimes 200-pound frame, and exuberant stage manner had audiences stomping their feet and shouting encouragement in R&B theaters from coast to coast from the early 1950s on," according to the Encyclopedia of Pop Rock & Soul. She received no formal training, either for voice, or for the instruments she played, like the harmonica and the drums. She was a true musician and was able to watch others play and then try things out until she got them right.
Born December 11, 1926 in the country outside Montgomery, Alabama, Thornton was one of seven children of a minister. She began her music career singing alongside her mother in her father's church choir and also playing harmonica, an instrument she picked up at a very early age, in small shows around the countryside. When, in 1940, her mother died Thornton was forced to go out and work. Only 14 years old, she took a job scrubbing floors at a local saloon and it was there that she had her first opportunity to sing in public when the regular singer suddenly quit her job one night leaving the place with no entertainment. After her first successful attempt at singing in public, Thornton entered a small talent show in which she won first prize, and it was there that she came to the attention of Sammy Green. Green asked her to join his Hot Harlem Review and Thornton was soon after seen touring with the vaudeville troupe, dancing and singing across the South.
In 1948 she stopped touring and settled in Houston, Texas having signed a five-year contract with Don Robey to be his nightclub singer, singing with Louis Jordan's band. There she met such famous musicians as Junior Parker, Lightning Hopkins, Lowell Fulson, and Gatemouth Brown. They all helped influence her building style, and it was while living in Houston that Thornton released her first recording under the name Harlem Stars. Brought more firmly into the blues world by this release, she was signed onto the Peacock label, which had her heading to Los Angles to perform with Johnny Otis, the famous bandleader.