A black woman singing the blues in clubs long before the days of rights for either women or black people, she would have probably been subjected to all sorts of indignities in order to even get up on stage. It would have been on the stage singing that she probably felt most alive and free. No matter what happened on the other side of the lights, she was in complete control of her life when she was singing.
Born Willie Mae Thronton in the late 1920s, like so many blues performers of her generation she came to music via the church. She was one of a Baptist minister's seven children in Montgomery Alabama, but had left home for good by the time she was fourteen. After singing and touring with a band for a while she decided to settle in Texas and take advantage of the club scene there to work permanently without having to go on the road.
It was in Texas that she was given the nickname "Big Mama" due to the fact she was over six feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds, but when you listen to her sing you could easily believe she was given the name because of the strength of her voice. Listen to her growl out her version of Lieber & Stoller's "Hound Dog" and compare it to the version Elvis sings.
Thornton's is rough with emotion and she's practically growling at the end, typical of the hard-nosed blues she preferred. Elvis on the other hand has had his version polished so it will be more palatable for mass consumption on the airwaves. Remember Elvis's image was carefully created for him by the Colonel as young and clean cut and the music had to fit.
Big Mama had no such restrictions placed on her and was free to do as she wished musically. Of the ten songs on the Vanguard Visionaries series disc featuring her she has written seven of the ten songs and offers her own arrangement of the traditional "Rock Me Baby." On every song you can here how she uses her voice to create atmosphere and evoke an emotional response from the listener.