Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters

Regular price $ 24.95

by Lynnée Denise

University of Texas Press

9/12/2023, hardcover

SKU: 9781477321188


A queer, Black "biography in essays" about the performer who gave us "Hound Dog," "Ball and Chain," and other songs that changed the course of American music.

Born in Alabama in 1926, raised in the church, appropriated by white performers, buried in an indigent's grave--Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton's life events epitomize the blues--but Lynnée Denise pushes past the stereotypes to read Thornton's life through a Black, queer, feminist lens and reveal an artist who was an innovator across her four-decade-long career.

Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters "samples" elements of Thornton's art--and, occasionally, the author's own story--to create "a biography in essays" that explores the life of its subject as a DJ might dig through a crate of records. Denise connects Thornton's vaudevillesque performances in Sammy Green's Hot Harlem Revue to the vocal improvisations that made "Hound Dog" a hit for Peacock Records (and later for Elvis Presley), injecting music criticism into what's often framed as a cautionary tale of record-industry racism. She interprets Thornton's performing in men's suits as both a sly, Little Richard-like queering of the Chitlin Circuit and a simple preference for pants over dresses that didn't have a pocket for her harmonica. Most radical of all, she refers to her subject by her given name rather than "Big Mama," a nickname bestowed upon her by a white man. It's a deliberate and crucial act of reclamation, because in the name of Willie Mae Thornton is the sound of Black musical resilience.


"In my favorite Willie Mae Thornton performance, she is much older, near the end of her life, singing with Aretha Franklin, who--in the moment--towers over her. And even with that physical disparity in mind, Thornton's presence is still massive, illuminating, almost beyond language. I say almost, as this book is an achievement in many ways: in sharpness of language, in brilliance of storytelling. But it is also an achievement in that it affords Willie Mae Thornton the presence she deserves, a presence that outlives and outlasts a history that has never done her justice." -- Hanif Abdurraqib, author of They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us

"Impressive research and thoughtful commentary illuminate the life and career of Willie Mae 'Big Mama' Thornton (1926-84) in this eloquent volume...What emerges is a portrait of an extraordinary woman who influenced later blues, rock, and pop music performers such as Janis Joplin...An engaging and well-written must-read with generous resources for further study." -- Library Journal, starred review

About the Author:

Lynnée Denise is an artist, writer, and DJ. She was the Sterling Brown '22 Distinguished Visiting Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College, and she is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Visual Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London.