How Big Mama Thornton's 'Hound Dog' built the bridge to rock and roll through Houston record label

Big Mama Thornton will finally enter the Rock Hall, joining tour de force and Godmother of Rock and Roll Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Brittaney Wilmore Image
Monday, June 24, 2024
How Big Mama Thornton's 'Hound Dog' built the bridge to rock and roll through Houston record label
Willie "Mae" Big Mama Thornton recorded "Hound Dog" while signed to Don Robey's Peacock Records in Fifth Ward, an early influence of rock and roll.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Before Tina Turner's "Proud Mary" took us rolling down the river, Labelle's "Lady Marmalade" flirted with glam rock and the Shirelles influenced the Beatles, there were two women paving the way for what we know today as rock and roll.

Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton outperformed the men of her day on stage, her larger-than-life personality and stature (she stood nearly 6-feet tall), commanding, or perhaps demanding, the attention in the room.

Thornton was the first to record one of today's most-widely celebrated hits, "Hound Dog," all while signed to a Houston, Black-owned record label, Don Robey's Peacock Records.

I just turned the radio on in the car. And the man said, 'Here's a record that's going nationwide - 'Hound Dog' by Willie Mae Thornton.' I said, 'That's me!'
Willie Mae 'Big Mama' Thornton

Thornton's legendary vocals rose again recently in Baz Luhrmann's 2022 biopic, "Elvis." Her gritty growl, or maybe howl, was briefly featured in the film, along with guitar heroine and the godmother of rock and roll Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Still, Thornton and Tharpe are among the early pioneers always present, but not always recognized in rock music.

Watch extended version: Pioneering women who birthed rock and roll | Stories of Big Mama Thornton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Big Mama Thornton will finally enter the Rock Hall, joining tour de force and Godmother of Rock and Roll Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Learn more about these pioneering women.

"Hound Dog" barks to the top

Thornton recorded "Hound Dog" in 1952, but the world didn't hear it immediately.

She shared in an interview with Chris Strachwitz, a German record producer and executive who founded the non-profit Arhoolie Foundation, that after she cut the record, "Don Robey put it on the shelf."

It would be issued in 1953.

In that same interview with Strachwitz, Thornton recalled the moment she heard the song on the radio in Dayton, Ohio, where she was set to perform at a theater.

"I just turned the radio on in the car. And the man said, 'Here's a record that's going nationwide! "Hound Dog" by Willie Mae Thornton.' I said, 'That's me!' [laughter] I hadn't heard the record in so long."

Courtesy of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Courtesy of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

"Hound Dog" climbed the charts, spending seven weeks at No. 1, not as a rock and roll hit, but under the genre rhythm and blues, or R&B.

The guitar lines on the original version of 'Hound Dog' are just so swampy and nasty and bluesy.
Roger Wood, music historian and author of 'Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues' and 'Texas Zydeco'

"The music that we now call rock and roll started in the 1950s, and in the early 1950s, it was known as rhythm and blues. It was music that was primarily dance music, party music, and it was created by African American musicians with an audience of African American listeners in mind, " said Maureen Mahon, author of "Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll."

That music caught the ear of radio stations targeted to white audiences, specifically teens, who liked what they heard.

"It started to grow in popularity to the point the DJs, and also people in the recording industry, understood that there could actually be a white market for this rhythm and blues music," Mahon explained. "And at the same time you have DJs, a specific DJ, Alan Freed, starting to use a term 'rock and roll.'"

Mahon adds that Freed popularized and used the term in reference to the party on his radio show, but over time, it was applied to the music, displacing the phrase "R&B."

She is a key blues influence to early rock and roll. And her sound, you listen to her sing. She is extremely rock and roll in her sound.
Deanna Nebel, Education and Content Supervisor for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on Big Mama Thornton

In essence, rock and roll carried more currency, especially in segregated America. By the late sixties, the name "rock and roll" would be shortened to "rock."

"The perceived audience for that music is white Americans or white Europeans as well, because, of course, the music goes across the Atlantic," Mahon told ABC13. "There's not an idea that African Americans have any connection to the music anymore, or any interest in it, or any involvement in it. So, the genre categories kind of create a community, and by inclusion, they also exclude."

"Hound Dog" would be Thornton's biggest hit, a funky, gritty groove written just for her by songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.

"The song is written from a woman's perspective talking about a man who wants to come around and have sex, but isn't helping to support her household," said Roger Wood, a music historian and author of "Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues" and "Texas Zydeco."

That's quite different from the version that gave Elvis Presley his longest-running No.1 hit when he performed it in 1956. The story goes he'd heard a cover version of Thornton's that changed the lyrics to talking about a dog.

Thornton's sounded different, too.

"The guitar lines on the original version of "Hound Dog" are just so swampy and nasty and bluesy. It's just amazing," Wood said.

"She's doing all this improvised barking at the dog, and, 'Don't you come wagging your tail at me.' It's really got verve that Elvis' doesn't. She's like, 'Come on!' She's talking to the guitar player while he's doing his solo, and it's really powerful stuff," Wood continued.

A Duke/Peacock business card. University of Houston Digital Collections

Big Mama heads to Texas

Before Thornton growled at men barking up the wrong tree in "Hound Dog," she was a preacher's child growing up in Alabama. She left home at 14 after her mother died and traveled with Sammy Green's Hot Harlem Revue, ending up in Houston.

"Well, in Houston, I started recording records for Don Robey. Before I recorded for him, he came out to the club I was working called The Eldorado Ballroom, on Elgin and Dowling, to hear me sing. And right then he wanted me under a contract. But I didn't sign right then," she told Strachwitz.

A Houston businessman and the first Black music mogul, Don Robey not only owned the Peacock label, creating space for talent who might otherwise not have been discovered, he opened the swanky nightclub the Bronze Peacock in Fifth Ward in 1945.

"It was the place in postwar Houston where Black folks who had some cash to spend and wanted to really go out for a fine night of entertaining where they would go," Wood explained.

Robey also created an environment where songwriters, supporting musicians and more could find work beyond the manual labor they were destined to do in many cases.

"It really juiced the scene," Wood said, adding that Robey would own five prominent labels over the course of his career, starting with Peacock, which targeted blues and R&B, in 1949.

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Houston businessman and mogul Don Robey. Houston Chronicle photographs

Robey also had a gospel imprint with his Songbird label. Robey acquired Duke, too, a label that started in Memphis, Tennessee, bringing that talent to Texas.

Part of Robey's empire included Buffalo Bayou Booking Agency, named after Buffalo Bayou and managed by powerhouse Evelyn Johnson.

"Robey was the money and the muscle. Evelyn was the brains," Wood said. "I think Robey's enterprises would not have been nearly as successful if Ms. Johnson had not had the brains to do what she did. She was a steady influence in Robey's enterprises."

Evelyn Johnson played a crucial role in Don Robey's enterprises. Houston Chronicle photographs

Although Thornton was signed to Peacock and recorded for the label from 1951-1957, she didn't record "Hound Dog" in Houston. In fact, that occurred in Los Angeles while she was on tour with bandleader, producer, promotor, songwriter and blues musician Johnny Otis.

It was normal for Peacock artists to record in L.A., Nashville, and Chicago as bands were going through the cities, with Robey booking and paying for studio time.

Thornton's time in Texas also included stops in Dallas and San Antonio. She also recorded for E&W Houston, located on what was then Dallas Avenue in Houston.

Johnny Otis, Big Mama Thornton and Don Robey. Getty Images.
Johnny Otis, Big Mama Thornton and Don Robey. Getty Images.

Texas-sized influence

As Wood explains, Robey created the blueprint that would go on to be the business model for Motown founder Berry Gordy.

Still, Robey's reputation was another matter.

"Robey was very hot tempered. Robey was known to carry a pistol. Robey was known to put the pistol on the table if some artist came in and gave him grief," Wood said.

He was also known, not unlike others of his time, to have stolen songwriting credits from his artists.

"Everyone agrees he never wrote a song in his life, and he began to be criticized for buying these songs from everybody and putting his name on it," Wood told ABC13. "He began to use an alias 'Deadric Malone.' His middle name was Deadric and his wife's middle name was Malone. So when you see Deadric Malone or D. Malone, those are songs he bought."

Thornton often lamented those financial losses, but that's not the only reason a talent like Big Mama never fully reaped her reward.

Nobody wanted her to open because she's the closer. She's the one you end on. I'm pretty sure Janis Joplin didn't want to do anything but open for Big Mama Thornton.
Deanna Nebel, Education and Content Supervisor for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

"She understood why she was being held back. That it wasn't a question of talent. It was sort of her body. You know, that she was a Black woman. That this was a problem," said author Maureen Mahon.

"She broke the mold in terms of what people thought a Black or African American woman should or shouldn't be doing in terms of yes, her sound, but also her dress and her demeanor," said Deanna Nebel, Education and Content Supervisor for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. "She would frequently wear men's clothing, which even today, maybe less so than the 40s and 50s, but certainly in the 1940s and 50s, people took note of what she wore and had opinions of what she should or shouldn't look like or sound like."

Big Mama was a larger-than-life talent with self-taught skills, including on the drums. Arhoolie Foundation.
Big Mama was a larger-than-life talent with self-taught skills, including on the drums. Arhoolie Foundation.

Not only was Thornton self-taught in singing, playing drums and harmonica, her talent influenced a Texas native, Port Arthur-born Janis Joplin.

After Big Mama left Peacock, she wrote and recorded "Ball and Chain."

Joplin saw Thornton perform the song in San Francisco and was reportedly "knocked out" by the number, soon producing her own version with Big Brother & the Holding Company that would make her famous in 1968.

A big difference for Thornton this time around, though, she said Joplin gave her credit for the song, which in turn gave Thornton's career a much-needed jolt.

Black women have always been a part of this music and have made contributions to the music that have shaped it. It wouldn't sound the way it does without Black women.
Maureen Mahon, author of 'Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll'

"Because that song blew up so big with the white folks and the folks listening to rock music as it was defined in the late 60s, that gave Big Mama a ticket to gig more prominently," Wood said. "That song became one of the handful of songs that really kind of defined Janis Joplin as one of the greatest white blues singers to come out of Texas."

"Nobody wanted her to open because she's the closer. She's the one you end on. I'm pretty sure Janis Joplin didn't want to do anything but open for Big Mama Thornton," Nebel added.

Thornton didn't return to Houston, mainly staying in California.

She was found dead in a boarding home in 1984 at the age of 58 after battling drinking problems and cirrhosis of the liver. Johnny Otis gave the eulogy at her funeral.

"She got more ink in the national media because of her death than she had received in the last 20 years," Wood said.

Still, come fall 2024, Thornton will get her flowers.

She will be inducted as an early influence in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on Oct. 19, a ceremony that will be featured live on Disney+ and the next day on Hulu.

"She is a key blues influence to early rock and roll. And her sound, you listen to her sing. She is extremely rock and roll in her sound. And there's no shortage of other inductees, and hopefully, even artists today that she has influenced. We're very excited to welcome Big Mama Thornton into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year," Nebel said. "Her story is important because it's a story about talent."

A gospel superstar skyrockets to stardom

Once she's inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Thornton will have joined another early influence, the Godmother of Rock and Roll Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Tharpe took her first steps to stardom in the late 1930s at the age of 23.

"Sister Rosetta Tharpe was immensely skilled on the guitar. No matter how you look at it," Nebel told ABC13.

Courtesy of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Courtesy of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Tharpe masterfully leaned on an instrument that would become synonymous with rock, with some saying she could make the guitar talk as her ringing soprano voice stirred souls.

"Like if she were making a sentence with the guitar, she makes sure the guitar takes a breath in order to play again, and I personally hear that when she's playing more rhythmic guitar. And you hear this in her voice, too. I think there's a lot of overlap in her gospel singing and gospel guitar playing," Nebel explained.

If you take her out of history, there is a gaping chasm that is left.
Grammy-nominated singer Yola on Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Rolling Stone

Tharpe was an early adopter of electric guitar and among the first to use distortion, inventing her own playing style. Those guitar pyrotechnics ignited a legacy that Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, to name a few, absorbed into their own sounds.

Tharpe also received brief recognition in the Club Handy on Beale Street scene in the "Elvis" biopic.

In the film, six-time Grammy-nominated singer Yola starred as Tharpe, who also influenced the artist in real life.

Yola told Rolling Stone in 2022, she was fortunate enough to be introduced to Tharpe's music growing up.

"I feel like if I didn't have exposure to Sister Rosetta and her guitar stylings, I don't feel I would have felt that instant kinship and ownership of guitar playing because I was told a gazillion times a Black woman had no right playing guitar," Yola said in her Rolling Stone interview. "I was even told by a record company A&R that no one wanted to hear a Black woman sing rock and roll. And I was like, 'Well, that's weird because a Black woman invented it.'"

"She's taking blues bends and giving it this church-related base and building up this energy to the point where it's rocking. The shred - the first shred," Yola continued. "If you take her out of history, there is a gaping chasm that is left."

Tharpe was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, the Godmother of Rock and Roll finally getting the crown she deserved.

Singer Brittany Howard, who was the frontwoman for Alabama Shakes, inducted Tharpe, performing the latter's song "That's All."

"If we listen carefully, we can hear them. We can hear their presence. We can hear their vocal style. We can hear the attitude and we can hear the talent," said Mahon of Black women in the genre. "The thing that I think is important to understand is that Black women have always been a part of this music and have made contributions to the music that have shaped it. It wouldn't sound the way it does without Black women."

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