Big Mama Thornton

Big Mama Thornton
Group 3 (Chen Chen, Cody Komorouski, Hailey Funk)
 Biography
 Musical Style
 Musical Analysis
 Musical Influences
 Other Music of the Period(s)
 Comparison of Big Mama Thornton musical Style to
concurrent musician
Biography: Early Life
 Born Willie Mae Thornton (12/11/1926-07/25/1984) in
Ariton, AL
 “Big Mama” referenced her physical size — she was a tall,
heavyset woman — and the magnitude of her voice.
 Introduced to music by her mom as a church singer at early
 Left Montgomery in 1941, following her mom’s death.
 Age 15
Seven-year tenure with Sammy Green’s Georgia-based hot Harlem Revue. (19411948)
1948, relocated to Houston, Texas.
1951-1957, recording contract with Peacock Records.
1957: New record label, Arhoolie
relocate to San Francisco Bay Area to play at local blues clubs
1951-1970, active recording artist
07/25/1984, heart attack caused death
Album Timeline
Big Mama Thornton
Performed at Monterey
Jazz Festival
Than Dirt
San Francisco
Blues Festival
Ball n’ Chain
Folk Blues
Big Mama Thornton
with the Muddy Water
Blues Band
Record Label: Arhoolie
Mama’s Pride
Big Mama Thornton Musical Style
First release in 1952
General Style:
Tempo: 140 beats per minute, 4 beats per bar
Form: 12- bar blues
Features: Thornton uses a rough, classic blues-style tone quality
Rhythm section – country blues-style guitar rhythms, bass on
beats, and hand clapping with a drum stuck on the side
for a strong backbeat
Fills by guitar bending strings to produce blue notes
Lyrics: love songs
Musical Analysis
Tempo: fast 140 beats per minute, 4 beats per bar
Form: 12- bar blues
Quadruple meter, duple subdivision. Contain backbeat
It has a medium range, more disjunct and varied melody.
It’s homophonic with melody and accompaniment
Lyrics is love-oriented.
Music analysis--Instrumentation
 Main instruments used: guitar, piano, bass and
drums can be heard
 Piano and guitar feature most importantly
 Occasional saxophone sound
 Rhythm is not the usual “offbeat” rock sound
 Instruments take backseat to her powerful voice
Musical Influence—under earlier
 Under the influence of her mother, a church singer.
 High gospel sound influence
 Self taught musician:
 Learned to sing, play harmonica, and drums
 Can’t read music: a lot of improvisatio.
 Distinctive sound: thrilled audiences, inspired others
Musical Influence on Other Artists
 Presley and Joplin borrowed elements of her vocal sound and
style of delivery — as well as key parts of her repertoire – as they
developed their own creative voices.
 Presley’s version of “Hound Dog” incorporated elements of
Thornton’s style: The snarl in her voice and the ways she snaps
off the words in the song’s opening, for example.
His faster tempo eradicates some of the confident defiance of
Thornton’s original, but he imports her “swagger” and forceful
 “hollering it out” in a deep, husky voice.
Presley plays on sexuality, much like Thornton.
Musical Influence on Other Artists
 Thornton became known to the young white blues revivalists
and helped to shape the sound of the next phase of rock and
roll, most notably through her connection to Joplin who
recorded Thornton’s composition “Ball ‘n’ Chain.”
 Rock critic Robert Christgau described Joplin’s vocal style as
“two-thirds Willie Mae Thornton and one-third Kitty Wells,”
partly grew out of singing against the volume produced by her
Musical Influence-popularity
 Mainly R&B popular
 Participated in many blues festivals
 “Hound Dog” was R&B #1
 Never made pop charts
 Elvis’s cover did
 Was paid only $500 total for her song
 1984: inducted to Blues Hall of Fame
Other Music of the Period(s)
Bill Haley (1925-1981)
Elvis Presley (1935-1977)
Carl Perkins (1932-1998)
Jerry Lee Lewis (1935-now)
Eddie Cochran (1938-1960)
Gene Vincent (1935-1971)
The Everly Brothers
Buddy Holly (1938-1959)
Fats Domino (born in 1929)
Thornton’s Hound dog
 Recorded at Radio Recorders in Los Angeles on August 13,
 Some of the choruses have thirteen rather than twelve bars,
and had the band bark and howl like hound dogs at the end of
the song. Her vocals include lines such as: "Aw, listen to that
ole hound dog howl...OOOOoooow," "Now wag your tail," and
"Aw, get it, get it, get it.”
 Has flexible phrasing making use of micro-inflections and
syncopations. Over a steady backbeat, she starts out singing
each line as one long upbeat
Elvis’s Hound dog
 Elvis would later call "the most embarrassing moment" of his
career; he appeared, singing "Hound Dog" to a Bassett hound
while wearing his white tie and tails. No hip-wiggling, no
gyrations, Elvis was directed to just stand there and sing the
song to the bored-looking mutt named Sherlock. Elvis dutifully
did what he was told and the whole "Hound Dog" thing might
have just ended like the memory of a bad toothache for a
disillusioned Elvis.
 It took the super-sensitive Elvis 31 takes to get just the right
version of "Hound Dog" on acetate.
 He stayed with 12 bar blue.
Social Influence
Black culture:
racial segregation was the norm
had its own distinct characteristics (speech, dance, religion, dress, &
Gospel and Rhythm & Blues
"race" records
Comparison to Current Musicians
Fast tempo
12- bar blues form (4 beats per bar),
Love-oriented lyrics
Under the influence of Gospel and Rhythm & Blues
Unique features:
Female singer with a rough tone quality
No saxophone solos or pounding pianos that marked the R&B sound.
Supported by guitar, bass and drums (vocals dominate)
Confident attitude
blues tradition of outspoken women in R&B
set the style for rock and roll: putting sexuality/gender expectations in
 Dreisbach, Tina. "Willie Mae "Big Mama"
Thornton." Encyclopedia of Alabama. 5 Apr. 2011.
Web. 25 June 2013.
 Mahon, Maureen. "Mama's Voice." Mama's Voice.
Duke University Press, n.d. Web. 23 June 2013.
 Stuessy, Joe, and Scott Lipscomb. Rock and Roll: It's
History and Stylistic Developments. 7th ed. N.p.:
Pearson, 2013. Print.

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