In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating overlooked and lesser known female musical artists from around the world. Though they may not be household names, in many cases they served as key influences on other artists who went on to be critical and commercial sensations. Their influence can still be felt strongly in the much of the music we listen to today, and many of them have fans and admirers from among today’s current music scene. In other words, these are artist’s artists—the ones in your favorite musicians’ personal record collections. So hunt them down, check them out, and let them show you why their names and their music should be on your lips. And while you’re at it, drop us a comment and let us know some of your favorite female musicians.
Big Mama Thornton (1926-1984)
Willie Mae (“Big Mama”) Thornton got her start in music early in life singing at the Baptist church in Alabama where her father was a minister. In 1941, when she was just 14 years old, she left home for good and joined the Hot Harlem Revue, touring and playing music around the South for the next seven years. Ready to settle down, but not ready to give up her music, Thornton moved to Houston, Texas where she began her recording career. In 1952, she recorded the Leiber and Stoller song “Hound Dog.” The record was a number one hit on the R&B charts and made her a minor star, but was eclipsed four years later when it was recorded by a young man named Elvis Presley. Though she kept recording and playing throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, she never again had a hit record. In 1968 she wrote and recorded the classic blues song “Ball ‘n’ Chain,” but was again overshadowed when the song was famously covered by Janis Joplin later that year. Thornton recorded her last album in 1975, but continued touring until her death in 1984. At the time of her death, in a Los Angeles rooming house, the once 350 pound “Big Mama” weighed just 95 pounds. Though she never got the credit she deserved, Big Mama Thornton was musical giant, a legend, and a straight out steamroller. To hear her wailing, belting voice is to be flattened. To watch her dance on stage as she feels the music she is making is to know joy.
Watch the definitive (sorry, Elvis) version of “Hound Dog” below.