You Thought White Folks’ Stealing “Cadillac Car” Was Bad? Talk to Big Mama Thornton.

The 2006 film “Dreamgirls” is undoubtedly my favorite movie. It’s one of the first movies I have vivid memories of seeing in theaters as it was my 7th birthday. 15 years later, It’s rare for me to go too long without incorporating the sayings and songs derived from the 1981 Tony award-winning musical into my terminology. All of this to say, one of the pivotal scenes in the film is the cover of the song “Cadillac Car” early in the film by white artists. The film (though some of the direct influencers refused to admit it) is an analysis of music in the 1950s and 1960s and actually includes a nod by Jamie Foxx’s character (Curtis Taylor Jr.) to Thornton herself as he laments over the work of Black artists being flat-out stolen by more well-known white artists. In the Blues community, Willie Mae Thornton–or better know by her stage name “Big Mama”–is an incomparable force to be reckoned. Yet, she is unknown by name to the general population…but two of her songs are not.

Willie Mae Thornton was born in 1926 in the small town of Ariton, Alabama. Similar to most Black artists at the time, Thornton found her musical footing in church. At 14, she came under the wing of Bessie Smith where her musical footing continued to grow. She eventually found herself in Houston where she recorded her first song “Hound Dog.” Yes, that Hound Dog. Thorton’s rendition of Hound Dog invokes the call-and-response method as a playful anthem showing Black women as sensual. People vaguely familiar with Thornton’s story may believe the song went nowhere until Presley touched it. However, the song spent 7 weeks at the top of the Billboard R&B charts and sold nearly 500,000 copies! An amazing feat for the time, except when you consider Presley’s rendition sold 10 million copies–making Presley’s name is cemented in history as the one most often associated with the song. Thornton’s work was again covered with Janis Joplin’s cover of her 1968 song “Ball n’ Chain.” Joplin paid homage  when she could & asked Thornton to open for her but Big Mama received no financial compensation for “Hound Dog” or “Ball n’ Chain.”

Though Thornton received little recognition while she graced the Earth with her talent until her sudden death in 1984, she was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984. Her rendition of “Hound Dog” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2014. However, these accolades are not enough for the impact Thornton made on the blues genre, the rock genre, and African-American music as a whole.

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