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Willie Mae Thornton, better known as Big Mama Thornton, was a blues singer and songwriter who was the first to sing the hit track, “Hound Dog,” made famous by Elvis Presley in the ‘50s. She was born December 11, 1926, just outside of Montgomery, Ala.

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Thornton’s singing career began in 1940 with the assistance of “Diamond Teeth Mary” McClain, joining the Georgia-based Hot Harlem Revue group. She played drums, harmonica, and also sang. After seven years with the band, Thornton moved to Houston to jumpstart her solo career.

In 1953, Thornton notched her first and biggest hit, “Hound Dog,” written by Jerome Leiber and Michael Stoller. Although the song was a chart-topper and sold over two million copies, Thornton reportedly only saw $500.

As the popularity of blues waned in favor of rock, Thornton moved to the Bay Area and maintained a modest performing career that surged as blues made a comeback in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Thornton became a fixture on the global blues tour circuit and her gritty, passionate vocals made her a favorite of the scene. She also saw an uptick in recording and release albums, during this period.

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Just as success was returning to Thornton, years of heavy drinking and problems with weight began to take their toll. In the final years of her career, Thornton was involved in a serious auto accident and her recovery kept her out of the limelight. She last performed in 1983 at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Big Mama Thornton passed at the age of 57 in 1984.

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