A familiar song buzzed the speakers as I played a friends’ mix tape – the original of a song made famous in the 50’s by Elvis Presley. I was captivated in the grit of the singer, Big Mama Thornton’s, voice, the way she howled, mimicking an old hound dog. She conditioned her voice in Montgomery, Alabama after quitting school at 14 to clean tavern spittoons when her mum passed and taught herself to sing from church gospel and Bessie Smith on the radio before she left home to join a travelling blues band. When she sang, she held her audience captive, bending, pulling and pushing the notes in call-and-response with her band. Her voice and stage presence earned her the nickname “Big Mama” from a manager at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. She wore men’s clothes on stage and sang risqué songs about loving other women that inspired rock n’ roll transgression.
Before singers like Big Mama Thornton (or Billie Holiday or Bessie Smith), music was a formal, European-conservatory affair that didn’t have a place for women to sing about their daily lives, but ultimately, segregation denied her larger success in the music world. Her two most well-known tunes were huge hits for later rock n’ roll stars – “Ball N’ Chain” by Janis Joplin and “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley. Both versions – the originals – have edges that lacerate in a way the copies cannot re-create. They are raw; they are the blues; they are what make rock n’ roll subversive.
“Page 29.” From upcoming book Psychosexual. Xerox, pen and gouache. 2017. See more of my work in the gallery.
Big Mama Thornton on stage. Photographer unknown.