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Thornton, Willie Mae "Big Mama" (1926-1984)  
 
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Thornton's preference for men's clothes was evident early on. Promoters coaxed her into skirts and gowns for the stage and early in her career she performed as the heavy-set woman of her moniker. As time went by, however, she asserted a more defiantly masculine appearance, often performing in a man's suit jacket and straw hat. Photos from her peak years show her jamming as one of the boys. However, the lyrics she sang and wrote, such as "Willie Mae's Blues," convey a woman's perspective.

Despite her rough-hewn persona, Thornton's singing ranged from the buoyant groove of "Sassy Mama" to the knife-edged intimacy of "Sweet Little Angel." She was equally adept with the rock tempo of "Partnership Blues" and the protracted cadence of "Hard Times," and her melancholy treatments of "Bad Luck Got My Man" and "I'm All Fed Up" prompt comparisons with Bessie Smith.

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Scant information exists regarding Thornton's relationships, though she is widely assumed to have enjoyed lesbian affairs. During the early years in the South she seems to have had a son whom the state removed from her custody, possibly because of the hard-drinking and erratic lifestyle of a traveling blues singer. She suffered another loss in 1954 when friend and co-performer Johnny Ace accidentally--and fatally--shot himself in her presence prior to their Christmas Eve show.

One constant in her life was younger sister Mattie Thornton Fields who became Thornton's companion and care-giver when her health deteriorated. They shared a boarding-house residence in Los Angeles at the time of Thornton's death on July 25, 1984. Fields had endured her own share of calamities and wrote the lyrics to "Everybody Happy But Me," which Thornton recorded in 1975.

Biographical sources report that Thornton died alone and destitute. Jeannie Cheatham's memoir and Jack Jones' obituary, however, cite second-hand accounts that loved ones were with her when she collapsed from a heart attack, discrepancies that might reflect mourners' wishes to soften the tragedy.

Former bandleader-turned-reverend Johnny Otis presided at her funeral.

She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984.

Ruth M. Pettis

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    Bibliography
   

Cheatham, Jeannie. Meet Me with Your Black Drawers On. Austin: University of Texas Press: 2006.

Gaar, Gillian G. She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll. New York: Seal Press, 1992.

Harris, Sheldon. "Thornton, Willie Mae." Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1979. 512-14.

Haskins, James. "Big Mama Thornton Dies of Heart Attack." Rolling Stone No. 430 (September 13, 1984): 43.

Haworth, Alan Lee. "Thornton, Willie Mae." Handbook of Texas Online (2001): http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/TT/fthpg.html.

Jones, Jack. "Blues' Big Mama Thornton Dies." Los Angeles Times (July 28, 1984): III,15.

Karpf, Juanita. "Willie Mae Thornton." Notable Black American Women: Book 2. Jessie Carney Smith, ed. New York: Gale Research, 1996. 641-43.

Miller, Mark. "Big Mama Thornton: Caught out of Time." Globe and Mail (July 28, 1984): E, 11.

Russell, Tony, and Chris Smith, et al. The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings. London: Penguin, 2006. 651-652.

Salem, James M. "Thornton, Willie Mae." American National Biography. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 21: 611-12.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Pettis, Ruth M.  
    Entry Title: Thornton, Willie Mae "Big Mama"  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2007  
    Date Last Updated October 8, 2007  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/thornton_wm.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2007 glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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