One of the most powerful female singers of all time, Big Mama Thornton hit the charts with “Hound Dog” three years before Elvis did. And even though she never had another chart-topper, she sang the blues for the rest of her life. Like many early blues stars she started off poor. She left her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama when she was 14 years old. Made her living on the African-American vaudeville curcuit as a harmonica player, drummer, singer and comic. And learned to sing the blues to make money to survive. Big Mama was a large woman, and a force to reckon with. But with all her power, her voice still has the depth of vulnerability. She was discovered in Houston by producer Don Robey in the El Dorado club. He took her into the studio and recorded “Hound Dog” but it wasn’t until much later that it was released to radio. Big Mama herself was shocked when she was driving to her theater job in 1953 and heard the announcer say “Here’s a record that’s gone nationwide! “Hound Dog” by Willie Mae Thornton!”
KEXP Documentaries are produced by Michele Myers, with assistance from John Felthous and Jentery Sayers. Executive Producer is Kevin Cole. You can listen to the whole “Blues for Hard Times” series or other archived episodes on soul, punk, post-punk, electronic pop, Latin music, International and rock-n-roll here. To get weekly posts that include featured audio documentaries, research materials, songs from artists and related film documentaries, become a fan of KEXP Docs on Facebook here.