Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, Los Angeles, 1978

Big Mama Thornton, more than any other figure in the history of Rhythm & Blues, typified the rough, brassy female blues shouter after which Janice Joplin styled herself. Her best known known record is "Hound Dog," which Elvis Presley chose, after hearing her version, for his second attempt at a hit. [He succeeded so well, with "Don't Be Cruel" on the flip side, that he became the first artist to hold the #1 and #2 chart positions with both sides of a single record.]

I interviewed Big Mama at her Los Angeles home in 1978. She drank a milky liquid from a gin bottle and told me how Johnny Ace shot himself in the head in their dressing room. Johnny was sitting with girlfriend Olivia on his lap, waving his pistol around, pointing it at Willie Mae. "Don't snap that on me," she told him. Johnny grinned and put the gun to Olivia's head. "Stop that, Johnny, you'll git someone killed," Willie Mae shouted at him. "Nothin' to worry about," Johnny replied, coolly, "ain't but one bullet here and I know exactly where it is." He turned the gun on himself, put it to his temple and pulled the trigger. And that was that. It was Christmas Eve, 1954, in Houston, Texas.

Photo by Charles Sawyer. Copyright, ©, 1997.

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