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The best blues singer you may not know

Big Mama Thornton recorded “Hound Dog” – a song written for her – on 13 August 1952.

Once upon a time, AM radio ruled American entertainment, from dramatic stories to news, from live music to recorded music, from comedy sketches to Roosevelt’s fireside chats.

In 1940, Billboard magazine “started publishing a weekly list of the best-selling records across the country.” It was the Golden Age of radio. But in the 1950s, the big radio networks shifted their energies to an emerging medium, television.

Music would become radio’s speciality. Music that was segregated, like society.

In 1951, Alan Freed, disc jockey on WJW Radio in Cleveland, Ohio, generated controversy when he “would play the original singles by the black artists instead of waiting for a white singer to cover them.”

“Rock ’n roll is really swing with a modern name,” Freed once said. “It began on the levees and plantations, took in folk songs, and features blues and rhythm. It’s the rhythm that gets to the kids…

One of those famous White covers (with tweaked lyrics) would be “Hound Dog,” by Elvis Presley.

Enter Big Mama Thornton

Born outside of Montgomery in rural Alabama in 1926, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton left home at 14 to pursue a career as an entertainer with Sammy Green’s “Hot Harlem Revue.”

She would be dubbed the ‘New Bessie Smith.’ In 1951, she signed a recording contract with Peacock Records.

Big Mama Thornton is one of the most influential figures in the whole of rock, even if you’ve never heard of her… In addition to being a woman, she was also African-American, and what she achieved in the time of Jim Crow, even if it was dwarfed by what she could have achieved, was monumental.

She stood almost six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, hence the nickname “Big Mama.”

On 13 August 1952, she recorded “Hound Dog” for Peacock Records with Johnny Otis and his orchestra. Peacock released the single in early 1953, and it would become her signature.

“Hound Dog” would be the biggest seller in the history of Peacock Records and Big Mama Thornton played it coast to coast. Called the “Peacock`s Belting Lady Killer of the Blues” or the “Reigning King and Queen of Blues,” Big Mama Thornton had a triumphal tour success.

It shipped more than 500,000 units. In 1953. Given the nature of the era, Thornton “saw little of the track’s profits.”

Thornton’s record sat at number one on the R&B chart for seven weeks according to Billboard; for eight weeks according to Wikipedia’s copy of Billboard’s 1953 chart.

In Thornton’s version (the original, written for her), she sings about “a woman standing up for herself and dismissing her lover.”

The lyrics of “Hound Dog” reflect a history of African American female performance in which blues singers addressed major issues affecting the lives of working-class black women including love, poverty, sex, and migration. According to Angela Y. Davis, the Blues Queens of the 1920s, such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, offered song lyrics that challenged “the dominant, etherealized ideology of love.” Instead of presenting picture-perfect relationships, the lyrics of classic women’s blues songs included references to failed relationships due to infidelity, mistreatment, and abandonment.

Elvis Presley would record a modified version in 1956. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 11 weeks.

Why was the Elvis version more popular? His being a White man was a factor, according to Gayle Wald, professor of American studies and English literature at George Washington University. “Popular music history is filled with examples of Black women being pushed to the margins,” he told the Washington Post in 2021.

Thornton also wrote and recorded “Ball & Chain,” a song that Janis Joplin made famous.

Hound Dog in music history

“Hound Dog” is considered an “important beginning of rock-and-roll, especially in its use of the guitar as the key instrument.”

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll” includes Thornton’s recording of “Hound Dog.” The Grammy Hall of Fame inducted her recording in February 2013.

The Library of Congress added “Hound Dog” to the National Registry in 2016.

Elvis Presley recorded “Hound Dog” to international acclaim… Big Mama Thornton would, for the rest of her life, tell how Elvis got rich and famous with “her” song. But to set it straight, Mike Stoller and Jerry Lieber wrote “Hound Dog” especially for Big Mama (emphasis added).

Thornton died in 1984.

Hound Dog (1953)

You ain’t nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin’ ’round my door
You ain’t nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin’ ’round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain’t gonna feed you no more

[Verse 1]
You told me you was high-class
But I could see through that
She told me you was high-class
But I can see through that
And daddy I know
You ain’t no real cool cat

[Verse 2]
You made feel so blue
You made me weep and moan
You made feel so blue
You made me weep and moan
Cause you ain’t looking for a woman
All you lookin’ is for a home

Songwriters: Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller

#scitech, #society, #media (205/365)
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Daily posts, 2022-2023

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