glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy






Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

Thornton, Willie Mae "Big Mama" (1926-1984)  
page: 1  2  

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.

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

  <previous page   page: 1  2    

Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about The Arts

   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  Blues Music

Blues music as it flourished in the 1920s was women's music, and it often featured sexually-inflected lyrics performed by women who were openly bisexual or lesbian.

arts >> Overview:  Drag Shows: Drag Kings and Male Impersonators

A recent arrival in the drag arena, drag kings are part of an international drag movement that emerged in London and San Francisco in the mid 1980s.

arts >> Overview:  Jazz

The relation of jazz to homosexual and transgendered experience has varied enormously over the course of its history, but, despite a hostile atmosphere, glbtq artists have made significant contributions.

arts >> Overview:  Music: Popular

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons have had tremendous influence on popular music, though some musical genres have been more receptive to a homosexual presence than others.

arts >> Bentley, Gladys

African-American Blues singer Gladys Bentley openly flaunted her lesbianism in the 1920s and 1930s, but recanted in the 1950s in an attempt to salvage her career.

arts >> Joplin, Janis

As troubled as she was talented, 1960s rock star and blues singer Janis Joplin created an enduring musical legacy that crosses barriers of gender, race, and class; although she never identified as bisexual, she had affairs with both men and women.

arts >> Rainey, Gertrude ("Ma")

"Mother of the Blues" Gertrude "Ma" Rainey made no secret of her relationships with women.

arts >> Smith, Bessie

Gifted with a powerful voice and sophisticated musical artistry, singer Bessie Smith conducted her life by her own set of rules and had affairs with both men and women.


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):

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  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2007 glbtq, Inc.  


This Entry Copyright © 2007 glbtq, Inc. is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.