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Holly George-Warren

Holly George-Warren is the author of a forthcoming biography of Janis Joplin, as well as a dozen-plus other books, including A Man Called Destruction: The Life & Music of Alex Chilton. A two-time Grammy nominee and ASCAP-Deems Taylor award winner, she teaches at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

“Downhome Shakedown”: The Music of Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
A singular female performer in 1950s R&B and the 1960s-70s blues revival, Alabama-born Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (1926-1984) played a mean harmonica, sang a fierce blend of gospel-tinged blues and R&B, wrote songs, and commandeered stages with vigor and magnetism. A cross-dressing lesbian who carried a purse the size of a briefcase (room enough for a fifth of liquor and a wad of cash), she once said, “I can’t sing like anyone [else] – I have to do it my own way.” She first found success with a #1 R&B hit in 1953: her original powerhouse version of Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog.” Her career had faltered when Janis Joplin saw her at a seedy Tenderloin club in 1966. (As a teen in Texas, Joplin had discovered Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” preferring it to Elvis’ ’56 hit.) When Joplin nervously ventured backstage to ask if her band Big Brother could cover “Ball & Chain,” Thornton said, “Sure, so long as you don’t fuck it up.” Big Brother’s version would change Joplin’s life at Monterey Pop. (“That girl feels like I do,” Big Mama said of her.) And Thornton was embraced by blues-loving audiences at the Avalon and Fillmore; she recorded for Arhoolie, backed by the likes of Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. The latter said of her, “Holy shit! That woman could sing! She was as good a blues singer as Joe Turner.” From leading a harmonica jam on “Downhome Shakedown” to moaning the Delta blues on “My Heavy Load” (backed by Mississippi Fred McDowell), the versatile Thornton left behind a deep body of work. My paper will look at Thornton’s groundbreaking music and document her powerful (though often unacknowledged) impact during the blues revival. Rare performance clips will make a compelling case for Thornton’s place in the blues and R&B pantheon.