Although Big Mama Thornton had only one hit record, her powerful voice influenced a generation of rockers, including Janis Joplin.
Willie Mae Thornton was born Dec. 11, 1926, in Montgomery, Ala. One of seven children, her father was a minister and her mother sang in their church choir. Thornton became interested in music as a child and, with her strong voice, won a local talent show when she was a teenager.
Thornton was influenced by blues belters such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie. In the 1940s she toured the southern U.S., as a singer and dancer with Sammy Greene's Hot Harlem Revue.
Thornton began making records in Houston in the 1950s. She also toured with Johnny Otis, Junior Parker and Johnny Ace. One of her first sides was "Partnership Blues," on Don Robey's Peacock Records with trumpeter Joe Scott's band.
With Otis' band, Thornton cut "Hound Dog" (RealAudio excerpt), which became her only hit, reaching #1 on Billboard's R&B chart for seven weeks in 1953. Both Otis and the famous songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have claimed they wrote the tune that was also a #1 pop smash for Presley, in 1956.
Though Thornton recorded many more songs on Peacock, including "I Smell a Rat" and "Stop Hoppin' on Me," she never became a huge star. But her growling, slightly threatening voice was a precursor to the style of many rock singers.
In 1965 Thornton toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. She also played the 1968 Monterey Jazz Festival and the following year's Newport Folk Festival. In addition to singing, Thornton played the harmonica during many of her '60s performances.
Thornton's Chicago Blues (1967) featured Muddy Waters and Otis Spann. Jail (1975) contained "Ball and Chain" (which Joplin made famous) and "Little Red Rooster."
Thornton moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in her later years and played blues clubs around the city.
On July 25, 1984, medical technicians found Thornton's body in a Los Angeles rooming house. That same year, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame.
Other birthdays on Saturday: David Gates (Bread), 59; Brenda Lee, 55; Andy Partridge (XTC), 46; Jermaine Jackson, 45; Mike Mesaros (Smithereens), 42; Nikki Sixx (Mötley Crüe), 41; Curtis Williams (Kool & the Gang), 37; David Schools (Widespread Panic), 35.