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Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton

FLORENCE — Dave Gallaher said the induction of rhythm and blues singer Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame is long overdue.

Thornton was born Dec. 11, 1926, one of four children, in Ariton, a rural community outside Montgomery. She later listed her birthplace as the state capital.

By the time she was 3, the family settled in Lauderdale County, where her father was a minister and her mother sang in the church choir.

She will be inducted into the hall of fame Saturday along with Gary Baker, Mervyn Warren and Elton B. Stephens. The sold out banquet is being held at the Marriott Shoals Conference Center in Florence.

Gallaher, known by music fans as blues guitarist "Microwave Dave," will announce the induction of Thornton, who is known for her 1953 hit "Hound Dog," which became a hit for Elvis Presley three years later.

Thornton is also known for her hit "Ball and Chain," which was later recorded by Janis Joplin.

Gallaher said "Hound Dog" was written specifically for Thornton by the songwriting duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

"This was their first really big hit," Gallaher said. "They wrote and recorded it in 1952 and it became a hit for her in 1953."

He said the track was physically brought to Thornton while she was in the recording studio.

While statistics vary, Gallaher said the record sold at a minimum 500,000 units and as many as 2 million. It was so popular, Peacock Records had to use two additional record pressing machines to produce more copies.

He said the song really established Thornton as a singer.

Chris Strachwitz is a legendary blues and roots music business pioneer and founder of Arhoolie Records, which recorded Thornton in her later years.

"I first saw Big Mama Thornton in Santa Cruz at a small bar on the beach, where she sat behind the drums, sang and played harmonica, which she kept in a glass of water on the windowsill next to her," Strachwitz said. "Later, I told Jimmy Lyons about her and he hired her for the Monterey Jazz Festival."

It wasn't until Strachwitz went to Europe with hill country bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell that he really got a chance to know Thornton.

"I also saw her interacting with many people in Europe, who always treated her with utmost respect and she in turn was always kind and tactful when receiving the kind of treatment she deserved," he said. "She was a tough woman who tried to survive and knew what it took in the U.S. to get her money. It was a thrill to record her for my Arhoolie label."

Musician/producer Andreas Werner, who is producing Saturday's induction show, said Thornton's induction is well-deserved.

"She worked with many of the blues greats, like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and James Cotton, and has influenced a host of performers, including Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, and also Kozmic Mama's Carla Russell, who will be performing in her honor on Saturday's induction show," Werner said.

Russell is expected to perform both "Hound Dog" and "Ball and Chain."

"She's a Blues Hall of Fame inductee and her song 'Ball And Chain' is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of the '500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll,'" Werner said.

Award-winning blues artist Doug MacLeod played in Big Mama's band early in his career.

“I played with Big Mama at the end of her life," MacLeod said. "I remember playing with her, I think, at the Parisian Room in L.A. and she singing that little ’twist’ she could do with her voice and (I remember) the goosebumps going up my arm. I thought to myself, what an honor to be backing her up. A very special musical moment for me.”

Thornton's career extended from the 1940s into the early 1980s. She died on July 25, 1984, in Los Angeles.

"She's a very compelling figure, both physically and culturally," Gallaher said.

He said Thornton was dubbed "Big Mama" during a run at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem.


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