I’m sure everyone has heard Hound Dog by Elvis. I’m equally sure most have never heard the original, recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton four years earlier in 1952.
Nor that it started life as a song with a strong message of black female empowerment, written for an African-American woman by two teenage Jewish kids – Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
Thornton’s version is a key tune in the development of rock’n’roll, using a stripped-back trio with guitar as the main instrument, rather than the usual piano and honking saxophones of most R&B tunes emerging from the jazzier era of swing and jump blues.
Leiber and Stoller, hired by bandleader Johnny Otis to write a hit for Thornton – a badass blues belter from Alabama – composed it in 12 minutes flat after meeting her in person and watching her rehearse some songs in the studio.
“We saw Big Mama and she knocked me cold,” Leiber later recalled. “She looked like the biggest, baddest, saltiest chick you would ever see. And she was mean, a ‘lady bear,’ as they used to call ’em. She must have been 350 pounds, and she had all these scars all over her face.”
The lyrics, directly inspired by Big Mama’s appearance and personality, told the story of a woman kicking a worthless gigolo out of her home – and her life, Thornton growling while the band – Pete ‘Guitar’ Lewis, Mario Delagarde on bass and Johnny Otis himself on drums – barked and howled in the background.
Leiber was not initially impressed: “I have no idea what that rabbit business is all about. The song is not about a dog, it’s about a man, a freeloading gigolo.”
Thornton was born in Alabama, the daughter of a church minister and a singer, and was dubbed “the new Bessie Smith” in her early days with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue.
One of the odder events in her career occurred in Houston, Texas, on Christmas Day in 1954 when she witnessed her fellow performer Johnny Ace accidentally shoot himself dead while playing with a pistol.
She never had another hit after Hound Dog although she did write and record the original version of Ball’n’Chain which her record label chose not to release – and was recorded several years later (and taken to another dimension) by Janis Joplin with Big Brother & The Holding Company.
Around the same time she came to Europe and came to England to record a couple of albums with a band of blues veterans including Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy.
After Elvis died in 1977 a reporter tracked Big Mama down to ask her how she felt about Presley making millions while she made only a reported $100 for her version. Her answer: “I’m still here to spend my hundred bucks.”
Sadly, she spent most of it on booze and years of heavy drinking took their toll, her weight dropping from 32 stone (450 lbs) to just over six stone (95 lbs), though she carried on recording and performing at blues festivals until shortly before death in 1984. She was 57.