Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters

Univ. of Texas. (Music Matters). Sept. 2023. 240p. ISBN 9781477321188. $24.95. MUSIC
Impressive research and thoughtful commentary illuminate the life and career of Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (1926–84) in this eloquent volume. Thornton’s vocal artistry—a blues style drawn from gospel and Black musical traditions—was a sound she made distinctly her own. Known for her powerful renditions, superior songwriting (“Ball ’n’ Chain”), and creative vocal and harmonica improvisations, she was fearless in her unconventional presentation both onstage and off. DJ/artist/writer Denise (former visiting professor of Africana studies, Williams Coll.) incisively analyzes Thornton’s hard-won musical career performing worldwide, from Europe to Harlem’s Apollo Theater and at numerous music festivals. The book also offers biographical details, discusses the speculation about her queerness, and sets everything within a social and historical context. No stranger to racial and gender discrimination, Thornton was also a victim of it within the recording industry, which made her lose royalties and professional credits. Three years before Elvis, she recorded “Hound Dog,” a song written for her that she took to #1 on Billboard, but she is rarely acknowledged for its success. What emerges is a portrait of an extraordinary woman who influenced later blues, rock, and pop music performers such as Janis Joplin.
VERDICT An engaging and well-written must-read with generous resources for further study.
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