Thornton was born in Montgomery, Alabama. Her introduction to music started in the Baptist church. Her father was a minister and her mother was a church singer. She and her six siblings began to sing at a very early age. Thornton's musical aspirations led her to leave Montgomery in 1941, after her mother's death, when she was just fourteen, and she joined the Georgia-based Hot Harlem Revue. Her seven-year tenure with the Revue gave her valuable singing and stage experience and enabled her to tour the South. In 1948, she settled in Houston, Texas, where she hoped to further her career as a singer. Willa Mae was also a self-taught drummer and harmonica player and frequently played both instruments onstage.
Thornton began her recording career in Houston, signing a contract with Peacock Records in 1951. While working with another Peacock artist, Johnny Otis, she recorded "Hound Dog", a song that composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had given her in Los Angeles.. The record was produced by Johnny Otis, and went to number one on the R&B chart. Although the record made her a star, she saw little of the profits. She continued to record for Peacock until 1957 and performed with R&B package tours with Junior Parker and Esther Phillips. In 1954, Thornton was one of two witnesses to the death of blues singer Johnny Ace. Her career began to fade in the late '50s and early '60s. She left Houston and relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she mostly played local blues clubs.
In 1966, Thornton recorded Big Mama Thornton With The Muddy Waters Blues Band, with Muddy Waters (guitar), Sammy Lawhorn (guitar), James Cotton (harmonica), Otis Spann (piano), Luther Johnson (bass guitar), and Francis Clay (drums). Songs included "Everything Gonna Be Alright", "Big Mama's Blues", "I'm Feeling Alright", "Big Mama's Bumble Bee Blues", "Looking The World Over", "Big Mama's Shuffle", and "Since I Fell For You", among others.
Her Ball 'n' Chain album in 1968, recorded with Lightnin' Hopkins (guitar) and Larry Williams (vocals), included the songs "Hound Dog", "Wade in the Water", "Little Red Rooster", "Ball 'n' Chain", "Money Taker", and "Prison Blues".
One of Thornton's last albums was Jail (1975) for Vanguard Records. It vividly captures her charm during a couple of mid-'70's gigs at two northwestern prisons. She became the talented leader of a blues ensemble that features sustained jams from George "Harmonica" Smith, as well as guitarists B. Huston and Steve Wachsman, drummer Todd Nelson, saxophonist Bill Potter, bassist Bruce Sieverson, and pianist J.D. Nicholas.
Thornton performed at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 and 1968, and at the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1979. In 1965 she performed with the American Folk Blues Festival package in Europe. While in England that year, she recorded Big Mama Thornton in Europe and followed it up the next year in San Francisco with Big Mama Thornton with the Chicago Blues Band. Both albums came out on the Arhoolie label. Thornton continued to record for Vanguard, Mercury, and other small labels in the '70s and to work the blues festival circuit until her death in 1984, the same year she was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame.
During her career, she appeared on stages from New York City's famed Apollo Theater in 1952 to the Kool Newport Jazz Festival in 1980, and was nominated for the Blues Music Awards six times . In addition to "Ball 'n' Chain" and "They Call Me Big Mama," Thornton wrote twenty other blues songs.
On July 25, 1984, Willie Mae Thornton died in Los Angeles of heart and liver complications, probably brought on by years of alcohol abuse which had reduced the one-time 350-pound "Big Mama" Thornton to a mere ninety-five pounds. Johnny Otis conducted her funeral services, and she was laid to rest in the famous Inglewood Park Cemetery, along with a number of notable people, including entertainment and sports personalities.
As an influence over the music and musicians which followed her, her importance cannot be overstated. Her name and legacy will forever remain among the very greatest of blues legends. Thornton's mighty voice, take-no-guff attitude, and incendiary stage performances influenced generations of blues and rock singers and carried on the tradition of tough "blues mamas" like Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Ma Rainey.
In 2007, in the movie Hounddog, singer Jill Scott played "Big Mama" Thornton.
Thornton is also the namesake of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls.
 Selective discography
Year Title Genre Label
2007 Big Mama Thornton Texas blues Vanguard
1994 The Complete OKeh Sessions 1952-55 Texas blues Sony
1975 Jail (Live) Texas blues Vanguard
1975 Sassy Mama! (Live) Texas blues Vanguard
1973 Saved Texas blues Backbeat
1970 The Way It Is Texas blues Mercury
1969 Stronger Than Dirt Texas blues Mercury
1968 Ball 'n' Chain w/Lightnin' Hopkins Texas blues Arhoolie
1967 Big Mama Thornton Vol. 2 Texas blues Arhoolie
1966 Big Mama Thornton With The Muddy Waters Blues Band Texas blues Arhoolie
1966 Big Mama Thornton in EuropeTexas blues Arhoolie" Wikipedia
Barbara Morrison portrays Big Mama Thornton in the blues musical "Howlin blues & Dirty Dogs"
They Call Me Big Mama
Down Home Shakedown :)
Ball and Chain w/ Lightnin' Hopkins
I'm Feelin' Alright w/ The Muddy Water's Blues Band
Wade in the Water
I wasn't going to post these videos 'cause it breaks my heart to see how she deteriorated in her last years, how tired she was and in how much pain but even then she still had it, so here they are...
I hope she knows how much she is truly missed...
You can find a listing of her albums here for sale