How Two White Artists Got Famous Off Of Her Songs

picture of big mama thornton with her name spelled out on the picture
Via Flickr
Briona Lamback
December 22, 2021

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, a Southern Blues singer, was a pioneer of Rock and Roll. In 1953, her single “Hound Dog” was #1 on the charts for weeks, selling over two million copies!

She must’ve made BANK, right?

No – Thornton only made $500 from the single! Worse, in 1956, Elvis Presley performed her “Hound Dog” on primetime television, launching himself into superstardom. 

But Thornton never received credit. Elvis even refused to perform with her! Years later, Thornton recorded “Ball and Chain,” which later became one of Janis Joplin’s signature songs. Thornton agreed to this, but didn’t receive royalties for a decade!

But Thornton never gave up. She was a hustler who put music first. Known in the business as that “difficult Negro woman,” Thornton carried a pistol and punched out venue managers who withheld her money after she’d performed!

She was so talented, musicians wanted to work with her, fully aware she fired people during performances for messing up and, unbothered, moved on with the show.

While Thornton didn’t receive the credit she deserves, her legacy lives on within Brooklyn's Willa Mae Rock Camp, a nonprofit music youth mentorship program.

“Only the strong survive,” Thornton would say. Like Thornton, we must persevere even when white supremacy tries to stop us from being great!

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