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

Big Mama Thornton - Part 3: 1960s to 1980s

Thornton performs Ball and Chain with Buddy Guy's Blues Band in 1970 (YouTube).


“Wrapped Up like a Ball and Chain”

In 1968, Thornton released “Ball and Chain,” another one of her signature songs. Similar to “Hound Dog,” the song track presents a woman who has been mistreated by her partner. Thornton sings,

Why do you wanna do all these things to me?

Because you know I love you

And I'm so sick and tired, so sick and tired of being in misery

Hey Hey, ball and chain

(Full lyrics here)

Thornton’s Influence on Janis Joplin     

In Thornton’s interview with Anthony Connor and Robert Neff, she disclosed that she had written the song nine years prior to its recording. She stated, “I was singing that way before I recorded it.”

After one of Thornton’s live performances of the song in San Francisco, the band Big Brother and the Holding Company approached Thornton seeking permission to cover her song, which Thornton granted. Notably, Janis Joplin was the lead singer of the band. The band’s guitarist James Gurley sought to put the band’s own twist on “Ball and Chain” by slowing the song down and changing its key. Big Brother’s cover propelled the band and Joplin into the spotlight after their performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The following year the band recorded “Ball and Chain” for their album Cheap Thrills. After the album’s release in August 1968, the album remained at the top spot of the Billboard Hot 200 charts for two months.

While Thornton voiced displeasure regarding Presley’s cover of “Hound Dog,” her views towards Joplin’s cover differed. According to Michael Spörke, Joplin repeatedly named Thornton as one of her musical influences. Furthermore, when Thornton and Joplin shared the same stages at venues, Joplin gave credit to Thornton by introducing her as the writer of “Ball and Chain.” As a result, Thornton respected Joplin as a fellow musician.


Joplin performing her cover of "Ball and Chain" at Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 (YouTube).

Joplin’s public recognition of Thornton helped Thornton’s career. Although Thornton had written "Ball and Chain" in 1959, her version would not be officially released until 1968. Thornton had originally recorded the song with Bay Tone, but the record label never released the track. With the success of Big Brother’s album Cheap Thrills, Arhoolie Records released Thornton own’s recording of “Ball and Chain” as a way to capitalize on the success of Joplin’s cover.

(Big Brother and the Holding Company – “Ball and Chain” Lyrics)

Thornton's Major Struggles and Her Later Years

Thornton faced many struggles throughout her long music career. In Thornton’s interview with Connor and Neff, she revealed that she had to sleep in all-night restaurants as a teen when she started in showbusiness. There were times when she had to visit different homes to ask for food and water.

Like many other black artists, Thornton did not receive the proper royalties for her songs. Thornton divulged to Connor and Neff that she had difficulties paying her rent and she also had to deal with managers who did not have her best interest at heart. While discussing her former manager Jim Moore, she stated, “I ain’t never going to forget him. That’s why my money is held up. He’s trying to get it, but I don’t think he’s going to make any headway.”

Despite these setbacks, Thornton maintained a positive attitude. She told Connor and Neff, “I’ve been happy. There have been dull moments, but you have to take as worse as you going to get it or else you are never going to see it. And I’ve been happy and I’d like to stay that way.”

After Thornton’s interview with Connor and Neff in 1974, she continued to face major struggles in her life. In particular, Thornton had been a heavy drinker and she was later diagnosed with cancer. In 1976, Thornton was involved in a major car accident that resulted in a six-month hospital stay, and she never fully recovered. She had difficulty walking years after the accident. She also lost a great deal of weight in her later years due to her health issues. Although Thornton's health declined, she continued to tour within the United States and abroad in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Thornton's performance of "Ball and Chain" on April 14, 1984 (YouTube). This performance occurred three months before she passed away.

Thornton’s Legacy

Although Thornton passed away in 1984, her contributions to music have been recognized after her death. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984. In addition, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain” as part of its list of 500 songs that greatly shaped Rock and Roll music.

In 2005, the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, named after Thornton, was founded in New York City. The camp offers young children and teens the opportunity to obtain lessons in music education and activism.