The Struggles and Triumphs of Bessie Jones, Big Mama Thornton, and Ethel Waters

Big Mama Thornton - Part 1: 1920s to the 1950s

Big Mama Thornton Publicity Photo Closeup Mercury Recording 1975

Publicity Photo of Thornton from Mercury Recording Label (1975).

The Early Years

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (Dec 11, 1926 - July 25, 1984) was born in Ariton, Alabama. Her family relocated to Troy City, Alabama when she was four years old. Thornton spent much of her time in church since her father, George W. Thornton, served as a Baptist minister. Her mother, Mattie Haynes, was a member of their church’s choir.

As a teenager, Thornton stopped attending school regularly in order to care of her ailing mother. At thirteen, Haynes’ subsequent death from tuberculosis prompted Thornton to drop out of school and search for work to support her family. At fourteen, she won first prize at an amateur singing contest and began her singing career. She joined Samuel Green’s Hot Harlem Revue and started touring the South. According to Michael Spörke, “The Hot Harlem Revue consisted of comics, girls in line and eighteen musicians. With about fifty people, they played mainly theatres.” The weekly schedule often included traveling between different cities in Alabama and Georgia.

In Thornton’s interview with Anthony Connor and Robert Neff, she revealed, “I traveled with them for quite a few years, and I went to Houston, Texas in ’48. We played there and then we left. As a matter of fact, I quit the show in ’48…They owed me a little, quite a bit of money and they wouldn’t pay it, and I just got tired.”

After leaving the Hot Harlem Revue, Thornton began her recording career with the release of “All Right Baby” and “Bad Luck Got My Man” in 1950. In addition, she started performing at the Eldorado Ballroom in Houston, Texas. At this venue, Don Robey, the owner of Peacock Records, discovered Thornton and offered her a five-year contract.  In 1951, she would begin recording music with Robey’s company. That year, Thornton’s “No Jody For Me” became a local hit in Houston, but did not have much success outside of Texas. As a result, Thornton had to find a second source of income to support herself. She started to shine shoes to make ends meet.