Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music
Author: Michael Spörke
Publisher: McFarland & Co., Inc.
Review Date: September 28, 2014
I don’t know why it is that sometimes an unmistakable American story doesn’t get written until someone from another country decides to write about it. For the second time, German author, Michael Spörke, has authored a book about an American musical icon. Just as he did with Living With the Myth of Janis Joplin: The History of Big Brother & the Holding Co. 1965 – 2005, Spörke has authored what is undoubtedly the definitive biography one Willie Mae Thornton, who is the name behind “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain.”
The book is entitled, Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music, and is an exhaustively researched and documented about this legendary blues pioneer. Written by Spörke in German and translated into English by Big Brother’s Sam Andrew (as he also did with “Myth”), the book is an engrossing page-turner from beginning to end.
The author takes the reader through the poverty stricken environment of Thornton’s birth, her move into the rough and tumble music business made even rougher in the segregated south. It’s not a “warm and fuzzy” read as we get a glimpse into Thornton’s world – a world that daily faced ridiculous prejudice and bias. We learn the stories of behind monumental songs like “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain” as well as the demons – both real and alleged – that Thornton battled.
The footnoting in this book is meticulously detailed. The translation work by Andrew is spot-on. The information we get from this tome is as accurate as is humanly possible given the limited availability of primary documentation and living human beings who knew Big Mama Thornton.
Music scholars as well as historians of rock and blues will most definitely want this book as part of their resource library. Why it took someone from Germany to write such a definitive book about such a major character in the history of American music, I’ll never understand but I’m certainly glad that Michael Spörke did exactly that.