Imagine you have a good idea, but someone copies it and gets more credit. That’s basically what happened to rhythm-and-blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton with her song “Hound Dog.” If you know the song, you might only know “King of Rock-and-Roll” Elvis Presley’s version. But before the song helped Elvis’s career skyrocket, it was a big hit for Thornton.
Thornton, who was born in Ariton, Alabama, in 1926, signed with Peacock Records in 1951. She stood out when compared with other female singers. Nearly six feet tall and 200 pounds, she got the nickname “Big Mama.”
“She had this tough exterior, and she had this very powerful voice which made her also seem very tough,” says Maureen Mahon, a music professor at New York University.
She often performed while wearing a suit jacket and tie with cowboy boots.
“Sometimes she would wear a dress or gown, but she also liked to wear what people would refer to as men’s clothes,” Mahon says.
Mahon says Thornton had an aggressive power when performing while staying true to the emotions of a song.
“She could convey many emotions and different kinds of feelings through her vocals. That’s a really important part of blues singing,” Mahon says.
Watching Thornton sing inspired Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to write “Hound Dog” for her in 1952. Thornton recorded it with a growl emphasizing the frustration that the song lyrics suggest — coping with a boyfriend who is also dating someone else.
Thornton had moderate success with the song in 1953. It reached Number 1 on the Billboard rhythm-and-blues chart. Several musicians recorded their own versions, but none had much success until Elvis.
The 21-year-old performer had heard a version of the song in early 1956 with some of the words changed. (It was about a dog, not a man.) Elvis decided to record it. His recording climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and stayed there for 11 weeks.
The song is seen as an important beginning of rock-and-roll, especially in its use of the guitar as the key instrument, according to Mahon.
Mahon says Elvis’s cool stage presence, which captivated audiences, can be traced to Thornton’s influence.
“I think he was getting that attitude from a singer like Big Mama Thornton, who was projecting that in her song,” she says.
Elvis was able to get his version to wider audiences than Thornton, in part because he was a White man, according to Gayle Wald, professor of American studies and English literature at George Washington University. He had hit songs by 1956, but he also had access to larger, mainstream markets.
“Popular music history is filled with examples of Black women being pushed to the margins,” Wald says.
Wald points to the start of the blues as an example. “The first [vocal] blues songs that were ever recorded [in the 1910s], were recorded by White singers. It wasn’t until 1920, when Mamie Smith put out ‘Crazy Blues,’ that a Black woman actually was on record singing a blues song. Even though blues was an African American art form.”
“[Thornton] belongs in that story. . . . Because of the way race works in the United States, Elvis got accolades” for “Hound Dog,” Wald says. “He received exposure and celebrity and praise for it.”
Thornton’s influence on Elvis and American popular music as a whole is an important part of her legacy. Although her work may have been forgotten by some, researchers such as Mahon and Wald continue to study and elevate her music and its impact.
“I think we’re making a lot of progress,” Wald says. “The Internet has made it easier to let people know about artists from the past.”