“…I would like very much to do spirituals. Because I feel that I got the voice. I feel like I got the power. I just feel like I could just do them. You would be surprised, mostly my occupation every morning is turn on my radio and listen to spirituals. I love those spirituals. I love good singing.” – Big Mama Thornton
Big Mama Thornton Interview: (34:40) LISTEN HERE: Big Mama Thornton
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984)
Interviewed By: Chris Strachwitz
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Chris Strachwitz : Why don’t we start off with where were born?
Big Mama Thornton : Eleventh of December.
Chris Strachwitz : Eleventh of December.
Big Mama Thornton : Yeah, Eleventh of December. An Alabama kid.
Chris Strachwitz : What town in Alabama?
Big Mama Thornton : Montgomery
Chris Strachwitz : In Montgomery. What was the year of your birth day? You mind telling us how old you are?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, that’s a secret. [laughter]
Chris Strachwitz : That’s a secret. Oh, okay, we will never find out.[laughter] What did your folks do? Did any of them play music or sing?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, my father, he was a minister. My mother, she was a Christian, hard and working woman. She sang Christian songs.
Chris Strachwitz : And did you ever sing with them in the church when you were a youngster?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, no, not exactly. I used to go to church a lot, but I didn’t do too much singing in church.
Chris Strachwitz : Did you grow up in the town of Montgomery, or did you–
Big Mama Thornton : Well, I left there when I was fourteen.
Chris Strachwitz : Oh, you left there when you were fourteen?
Big Mama Thornton : Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz : Did you leave with your folks or just take off on your own?
Big Mama Thornton : No, I left with the show.
Chris Strachwitz : Oh, yeah? What was that? What was the name of it?
Big Mama Thornton : The Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Review. Out of Atlanta, Georgia
Chris Strachwitz : Is that right? How did they happen to find you? Did they hear you singing someplace?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, I did an audition on this show when they were playing a little theater there in the home town.
Chris Strachwitz : And where did you tour?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, we went to Atlanta, Birmingham, and back home, Columbus, Georgia, Macon, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida. We just toured practically everywhere.
Chris Strachwitz : What year was this roughly? Can you tell us? Was this before the war?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, I started before the war. Then, after the war broke out we went touring through Texas.
Chris Strachwitz : What sort of things? Was this kind of a minstrel show or was it just a music show?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, a stage show, like, playing in theaters.
Chris Strachwitz : Did they have dancers and comics and all that?
Big Mama Thornton : Yeah. Dancers, chorus girls, comedians, singers.
Chris Strachwitz : How long did you stay with them?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, up until ’48. That’s when I left Houston. I quit the show in Houston, Texas.
Chris Strachwitz : Did you go on your own from there in Houston?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, in Houston, I started recording records for Don Robey. Before I recorded for him, he came out to the club I was working called The Eldorado Ballroom, on Elgin and Dowling, to hear me sing. And right then he wanted me under a contract. But I didn’t sign right then. [laughter]
Chris Strachwitz : Good, take your time. Who was telling you that people would be there at the time? Was it your band? Or did you just play– ?
Big Mama Thornton : No, I was playing with a group called Smiley and he had Ike Smalley. He was a band leader there at the Eldorado. That was his band. And then after he left, another band came in, Pluma Davis and his rock. We called them the house rockers. And they were doing pretty nice.
Chris Strachwitz : Who was telling you that singers around town that you remembered around ’48 around Houston?
Big Mama Thornton : Around Houston? Well, Gatemouth Brown, he was real hot there. He was on Peacock Label. Roy Brown, he was in town. He was pretty hot around in that length of time. And I got a chance to meet Louis Jordan when he come to town. Big Joe Turner.
Chris Strachwitz : Yeah, he used to be a real favorite in Houston, didn’t he?
Big Mama Thornton : [laughter] Fats Domino. He was working. That’s when he put out his record, They Call Me The Fat Man.
Chris Strachwitz : Oh yeah. How long did you stay around Houston then?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, in ’51 I cut this record, Let Your Tears Fall Baby, and I went to San Antone and I worked down there. I worked in San Antone for a while. And when I came back, I was working around Houston, different little night clubs. Johnny Otis, he came in town, that was in ’52. So, we did an audition on his show that night when I was working with Gatemouth Brown. He wanted me to sing with his band. So, I did a song with his band, and he liked the way I performed on stage. So he hired me. So he took me on tour, New York.
Chris Strachwitz : Oh, your toured with Johnny? What was his band then?
Big Mama Thornton : That’s when I first went to the Apollo Theater in ’52.
Chris Strachwitz : Oh, I never knew you went to the Apollo Theater in ’52. Did you also go to Los Angeles then?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, we left Houston, and we went to Los Angeles. While I was there we recorded Hound Dog, but Don Robey put it on the shelf. So, we go from Los Angeles, played in California. We played the tour; here, Sweets Ballroom, San Francisco, The Fillmore Auditorium. Then we go back to Los Angeles and then we leave Los Angeles and go back through Houston, Texas battling the blues with Gatemouth Brown. Then we leave there and we go through Florida, and back up all around the East Coast coming into New York. Goes into the Apollo. That was in June of ’52. So, the last part of ’52, we goes Providence, Rhode Island, all the England States; Boston, Massachusetts, all around through there.
We leave Providence, that was pretty close to Christmas. I was supposed to go back. I wanted to go home. I was kind of home sick. So, I wanted to see the whole gang. I caught a train, I leave New York and come back to Houston. I got there just a little before Christmas. Don Robey put me on a show in his night club. I worked that Christmas and that New Year at his club. That was before they tore it down. It was called The Bronze Peacock. They tore it down and made offices out of it. Now it’s a big office where they cut records. They have a record studio in there where they are recording. In the back they press their own records.
In 1953, that’s when I met Johnny Ace. They send me to Dayton, Ohio. That’s where I joined him, playing for him at
the theater there. I forget the name of the theater. I was going to the theater, and I just turned the radio on in the car. And the man said, “Here’s a record that’s going nationwide! Hound Dog by Willie May Thornton.” I said, “That’s me!” [laughter] I hadn’t heard the record in so long. When we get to the theater, they were blasting it. You could hear it from the theater on the loud speaker on the outdoor. They were just playing Hound Dog all over the theater. I go up in the operating room and I said, “You mind playing that again?” The man held the record in so long, I had forgotten the words myself.
I stood there while he was playing it, listening to it. So, that evening, I sang it on the show, and everybody went for it. Hound Dog just took off like a jet. Right now, I wish I could get another dog. [laughter] or cat or something.
Chris Strachwitz : Then I guess you toured around? When did you finally come back out here again?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, before I came out here, I went back into the Apollo Theater in February of ’55. When I came back, I toured around that part of the country. That’s when I ran into Big Maybelle. Her and I were battling the blues. Well, that tour ended that way. So, I drove on back down through Alabama, Georgia… stopping and seeing old friends because I didn’t have anything else to do. I go back to Houston. We went on a tour with Gatemouth Brown, I worked around with him during the first part of ’56. Around Thanksgiving I came out here, and I haven’t been back.
Chris Strachwitz : Did Robey used to book you? Did he have a booking agency?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, Don Robey didn’t actually book me. Evelyn Johnson was booking me on Buffalo Booking Agency.
Chris Strachwitz : Oh, I see. That isn’t run by Robey ……
Big Mama Thornton : Well, I don’t know what he has anything to do with it now, but it’s coming out of his office. Peacock, you know.
Chris Strachwitz : How did you pick up most of your songs?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, some I wrote myself. Some other people write, and I sing them.
Chris Strachwitz : About that Hound Dog and I Smell A Rat… Where those two writers there? Did they just happen to be there?
Big Mama Thornton : Jerry Lieber, he wrote Hound Dog and I Smell A Rat. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, they wrote those two numbers there. They wrote both sides of that record if I’m not mistaken. Nightmare was on the first Hound Dog. They wrote both sides of that record.
Chris Strachwitz : Where they from Houston, or what?
Big Mama Thornton : No. Actually, they are from New York, but they were staying in Los Angeles at the time when they.. They know Johnny Otis very well.
Chris Strachwitz : Oh, I see. Because they have written a lot of songs for The Coasters. I think they wrote that Yakety Yak.
Big Mama Thornton : Yeah, and I know they wrote quite a bit.
Chris Strachwitz : Who were some of your favorite singers when you were a youngster? When you were growing up?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, I didn’t have no favorite singer. I just admired good singing.
Chris Strachwitz : Did you hear anybody you liked when you were in Birmingham still?
Big Mama Thornton : No. Well, my favorite blues artists was Muddy Waters and Big Maceo and, you’d be surprised, Lowell Fulsom… all the cats in there. I admired them. Roy Brown, I used to sing all of his songs. Of course, I didn’t have no hit record, but I was singing everybody else’s record. Because when I went into the Apollo Theater, you would be surprised what I went over with… Have Mercy Mercy Baby by The Dominoes. [laughter]
Chris Strachwitz : Oh yeah.
Big Mama Thornton : Billy Ward and the Dominoes That was the time when Clyde McPhatter was there with them.
Chris Strachwitz : That was about the time that I got interested in this music.
Big Mama Thornton : That was the first time I had ever been to New York.
Chris Strachwitz : That song might actually be a good song for you to redo, Have Mercy Mercy Baby?
Big Mama Thornton : Yeah, that’s a nice tune. I like that.
Chris Strachwitz : What did your parents think whenever you started singing Blues and not church music?
Big Mama Thornton : I lost my mother in ’39 and I wasn’t singing Blues then. I wasn’t doing anything, just staying around home.
Chris Strachwitz : Is that when you left home, after your mother died?
Big Mama Thornton : No, I didn’t leave right away.
Chris Strachwitz : You said that you liked to sing Gospel songs. Have you ever seriously thought about making some records of spirituals and gospel songs.
Big Mama Thornton : I thought about it a great deal, and I would like very much to do spirituals. Because I feel that I got the voice. I feel like I got the power. I just feel like I could just do them. [laughter] You would be surprised, mostly my occupation every morning is turn on my radio and listen to spirituals. I love those spirituals. I love good singing. The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Soul Stirrers, Mahalia Jackson, The Davis Sisters… The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. They just knock me out. When I hear good singing, I love it. Frankly, I love all good singing.
Chris Strachwitz : Yeah, I think that’s the way I do too. You mean you got into blues because people wanting you to sing it more rather than..
Big Mama Thornton : How I got into Blues, because I didn’t know anyone at the time to do what I wanted to do. In that condition, when you’re hungry you try to make a fast buck. You try to stop from being hungry.
Chris Strachwitz : Well, I hope that you can do the things that you want to do. As far as I’m concerned, I’d like to make some records and do whatever you want to do. That’s the way I look at it.
Big Mama Thornton : I would like very much to cut some spirituals. Get me a good group behind me and cut some nice, old time records. Spiritual records. Because I like good singing.
Chris Strachwitz : I guess you don’t want to talk too much about your early days. I’m always interested how people get started and what you hear around you. You didn’t hear much except your family and people singing in church and so on?
Big Mama Thornton : No, not too much about that.
Chris Strachwitz : Who else was on that show that you auditioned for when you started? Where there any names that I may recognize.
Big Mama Thornton : Yeah, a young man was singing on the show at the time called Billy Wright. He may a nice hit record, and he was doing real nice on there. He got on Savoy Label, and he was doing pretty nice on there. I haven’t heard from Billy in quite a while.
Chris Strachwitz : You don’t remember hearing any low down Blues guys around your hometown, Montgomery, Alabama.
Big Mama Thornton : No. No.
Chris Strachwitz : Guys like, Muddy Waters. He didn’t have the style.
Big Mama Thornton : Well, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. Jimmy Reed, I didn’t hear from here until lately here. And Muddy Waters he was out, he was doing something. And Howlin’ Wolf, they was on labels.
Chris Strachwitz : Yeah, but you didn’t hear any local people down there?
Big Mama Thornton : No. The only thing I hear local was some spiritual quartets. I done forgot the name of that, it’s been so long. [laughter]
Chris Strachwitz : It’s very strange that there’s so few. Most of the Blues singers that would come out of Mississippi or Texas.
Big Mama Thornton : I didn’t get to hear anything about nothing like that until after I had started singing and was already gone away and then people tell me, “Well, I’m from Montgomery”, or “I’m from Alabama. Tennessee.” But I didn’t know anything about them because they came along behind me.
Chris Strachwitz : How did you meet up with this fellow Brad Taylor?
Big Mama Thornton : Brad Taylor? He got a record on the shelf. You know that Sentimental Reasons thing I used to do? I cut a tape on that. I don’t know what he did. I guess he wore the tape out. He won’t release the record.
Chris Strachwitz : [laughter] Did you meet him when you worked in San Francisco?
Big Mama Thornton : Yeah I met Brad while I was working in Santa Cruz and San Francisco around the bay area around here.
Chris Strachwitz : Is there anything you want tell us. Maybe you want to tell the world about?
Big Mama Thornton : Yeah, I need a job. [laughter]
Chris Strachwitz : [laughter]
Big Mama Thornton : I need a job. I need help. Help!. So many youngsters are jumping up now, and they forget about the old timers. And right now, they’d be surprised that the old timers got more to offer than some of those youngsters.
Chris Strachwitz : I noticed that things are changing so fast, it seems like even people like Charles Brown, and everybody…
Big Mama Thornton : That’s right.
Chris Strachwitz : Big artist like yourself, all of a sudden all of this crop of new kids coming in… it’s so hard to..
Big Mama Thornton : You know if people would just come out and listen to the old timers, they would realize that the old timers are still going. All I need is a break. All I want to do is to put something out there that means just let me sit down and take my time… put some good background behind it, and let me just show the world what I got. That’s all I want.
Chris Strachwitz : Well, I hope we’ll be able to do that.
Big Mama Thornton : It goes to show you. Now, on the stage, I can perform forty minutes, and never say the same thing twice. It just comes to me like that, and can just start singing and make a song right on the stage. And I think just making up a song on the stage and you get that feeling, and you got somebody behind you that’s grooving… It comes out much better anyway.
Chris Strachwitz : Yeah. That’s true.
Big Mama Thornton : Because, to my idea, to a person write a song. They help give me songs, and I wind up changing that song completely.
Chris Strachwitz : Yeah.
Big Mama Thornton : It’s just like when I made This Summertime. I didn’t do it like everybody else do it, I do it different. And the flip side called, True Come to the Light, the man that wrote that side gave me the words and I changed it around completely. And, True Come to the Light to me it sounded better than Summertime.
Chris Strachwitz : I never heard that. I heard of Summertime once…… I’ve been meaning to get that record.
Big Mama Thornton : And this new record…I got an answer to Hound Dog called Tom Cat.
Chris Strachwitz : Oh yeah? Have the put that out?
Big Mama Thornton : Well, they released it, sad to say, the day that our president got assassinated. So, that stopped that.