I would guess that anyone reading this is familiar with Elvis Presley’s 1956 rendition of “Hound Dog,” but the King wasn’t the first singer to hit the top of the charts with the song. That would be Big Mama Thornton, the blues-singing harmonica wiz whose record of the song sat atop R&B charts while Elvis was still in high school. In fact, it’s been said that Elvis wasn’t even aware of Big Mama’s earlier version of “Hound Dog” when he recorded the song a few years later, but if that’s true then he missed something special.
Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton was quite a character. In her prime, she was a huge and formidable presence, often dressed like a man and definitely sporting a lot of attitude. Her rumbling vocals, punctuated by occasional harmonica play (especially in her later years) and backed by performers like Johnny Otis and Buddy Guy, were memorable.
Growing up in Alabama where she learned to sing in church, Thornton was still in her teens when she began a professional career during World War II by joining a touring musical group. She continued to build experience in the post-war years and by the early 1950s had managed to sign a record contract. Her first couple of records didn’t set the world on fire, but when she cut “Hound Dog” backed by Johnny Otis and his band, the record topped the R&B charts for seven weeks.
Big Mama Thornton would continue to perform for another three decades, although with less frequency in her later years, mostly due to declining health. She made some good records along the way, including “I’m Feeling Alright,” “Ball And Chain,” and “I Smell A Rat,” but none would approach the popularity of her one big hit. She died in 1984 at age 57.