In 1950, a kid from Baltimore met a kid from Long Island in Los Angeles. The older of the two, Mike Stoller, was a piano playing college freshman. The other, Jerry Lieber, worked in a local record store called Norty’s while he was a high school senior. The pair bonded over a common love of blues and R&B.
Lieber and Stoller began to write songs together. Jimmy Witherspoon recorded their first song, “Real Ugly Woman,” but it was Charles Brown who gave them their first hit with “Hard Times” in 1952. That same year, Lieber and Stoller wrote a song for a blues singer by the name of Big Mama Thornton. The song was called “Hound Dog.”
She was born Willie Mae Thornton in Alabama and began singing in the Baptist church at an early age. Thornton left home at the age of 14 and got a job with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue. It wasn’t long before she was being called “the new Bessie Smith.” In 1948, she moved to Houston where her career began to gain some traction. Three years later she signed with Peacock Records. The next year, with Lieber and Stoller producing, Thornton recorded “Hound Dog.”
The record topped the R&B chart, but as happened all too often in those days, Thornton saw very little money from it. She continued to record for Peacock until 1957 but never had another hit. In the early ’60s, she wrote and recorded a song called “Ball ‘n’ Chain” for the Bay-Tone label. The record was never released and when the song was recorded by Janis Joplin several years later, it was the record company that had the copyright and again Thornton ended up on the short end of the stick.
Thornton relocated to San Francisco, but her career was clearly on the decline. She continued to tour, and to record for a succession of labels and in 1969, after Big Brother and the Holding Company included “Ball ‘n’ Chain” on their hit album Cheap Thrills, the renewed interest in Thornton led to a record deal with Mercury. But again she found little success and moved on to other labels.
By that time, interest in original American blues singers like Thornton was fading while younger artists were making huge amounts of money playing the blues in arenas. Thornton thought she would be more appreciated in Europe and in 1972 she was part of a successful tour of the continent that included Big Joe Williams, Robert Pete Williams, T-Bone Walker, and others.
A year later Thornton performed at the Newport Jazz Festival alongside Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. By that time, years of heavy drinking were taking their toll on Thornton. She recorded her last two albums for Vanguard Records in 1975. She continued to appear at blues festivals for several years but in 1984 she was found dead in a Los Angeles boarding house, the victim of her excesses at age 57.
Thornton was inducted into the Blues Music Hall of Fame that year. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll” includes “Ball ‘n’ Chain.” There is little doubt that racial segregation in the United States prevented Thornton from getting the recognition that she deserved, and she remains under-appreciated to this day for her role in helping to shape American music.
Thornton’s recording of “Hound Dog” spent seven weeks at the top of the R&B chart and sold 500,000 copies. The song has been recorded more than 250 times since then. The most well-known of those records was the 1956 Elvis Presley version which sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and topped the Pop, R&B, and Country charts in the U.S.