We’re thrilled that Lynnée Denise’s book Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters has been featured by some incredible outlets as a recommended read! The Millions included it on their “Most Anticipated: The Great 2023 Book Preview,” Ms. Magazine featured the book in their “September 2023 Reads for the Rest of Us,” and Book Riot declared it one of the “Best New Biographies of 2023“!
Below you can read the introduction to Lynnée’s book to get ready to join a virtual conversation with Lynnée Denise and Dante Ross (author of Son of the City, Rare Bird Books) in the new year!
The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music co-sponsors the Popular Music Books in Process series, a collaboration between the Journal of Popular Music Studies, IASPM-US, and the Pop Conference meant to offer writers and scholars with books on all kinds of popular music—whether recently published or still in progress—a chance to connect with a deeply interested community of readers.
Email Froyster@depaul.edu to be added to the series email list and get Zoom links when more details on the virtual event are released! To see sessions from earlier in the series, go to their YouTube page.
An excerpt from Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters
By Lynnée Denise
I started chasing Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton’s story because of the biography I heard in her voice. My journey began when I watched her 1970 performance of “Ball ’n’ Chain” with the Buddy Guy Blues Band. She walks onto the stage, nods to greet the band, and without saying a word scans the audience for nearly fifteen seconds before introducing the song. Some of that time is spent shaking her head, eyes closed, taking in the sound of Buddy’s electric guitar. As she does this, the audience observes a private meditation on stage. Written all over Willie Mae’s face during this performance, in between the scars her life had earned her, was an awareness of her power as a musician. She wore a two-piece denim suit with a fat, pointed collar. As far as fashion goes, this outfit was ahead of its time, giving her the androgynous look she fought to preserve throughout her career. On top of her head sat a crown—a solid black Cossack fur hat, calling to mind an African dignitary like Winnie Mandela. To complicate things, she wore rhinestone drop earrings. She appeared glassy-eyed and slightly buzzed, yet her skin was glowing and her words were clear. In this state she was on time and on beat—maybe numb from years of clarity about the cost of fame in an industry that systematically stole from Black artists. Willie Mae Thornton was a witness and a carrier of stories.
This movement I’m doing on the page is the literary embodiment of a specialized listening practice. I’m listening to her listen to musicians and shout out cues that swing between encouraging and reprimanding. I hear and see in Willie Mae the ways of infamous bandleaders like James Brown, Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill, and Prince, who weren’t above docking pay or humiliating the band to achieve a superior sound with a sharp side-eye. Like the great blueswomen who came before and after her, Willie Mae was clear about what she wanted to achieve, and she was uncompromising if ever a note went astray. History treats women who know this pursuit of musical supremacy differently from men. Instead of being crowned geniuses, they get labeled demanding “divas.” For this work, I decided to listen differently.
My experience of listening to Willie Mae Thornton’s story is dependent on the set of ears I’m using to hear. As a DJ, I’m confronted by potential samples and other genres that can be mixed and blended with her style(s) of music. Second, I hear the difference between listening to her voice through a digital filter (CDs or MP3s) versus hearing it jump off a piece of vinyl—a format that captures finer details of the song’s qualities—including the hisses and pops between music and lyrics. Third, I hear the evolution of her discography based on her relationships with record labels. Finally, I’m listening for the different places where she can be cataloged in my collection, and how she fits comfortably in categories like the one inspired by her unexpected excursion into the world of Haight Ashbury hippies—West Coast folk-blues—where Willie Mae makes sense next to Jose Feliciano, Richie Havens, Odetta, and Joan Armatrading. She, like the other artists of this ilk, forced preexisting notions of Blackness and music to take into consideration Black artist–led, cross-genre fusions. So perhaps the question I’m trying to answer in this book is what it means not only to listen to the sounds Willie Mae makes but also to hear the details of the life she crafted and lived.
In Willie Mae, I hear a philosopher who dropped out of elementary school. I hear a superb understanding of theory from a person who never learned to read or write music. In this, she reminds me of Jimi Hendrix, a fellow rhythm rebel who straddled genres because he bucked the restriction of formal training and because his hyperintuitive musical literacy was coupled with discipline and skill. I hear Willie Mae’s confidence and command of the stage as well as the matriarchal masculine force with which she holds this space across genres and decades. As the granddaughter of a Black woman from Mississippi, I hear in Willie Mae’s music what I call sharecropper soul— of the field-hollering variety.
I think of Willie Mae holding the harmonica or playing the drums and I see her hands. Hands that tell the story of the part-time shoeshine business she set up in the front of venues where she performed in different cities during the first decade of her career. Hands that speak to the first job she held, cleaning the tobacco spittoons in a local saloon. Hands that convinced the saloon owner to allow her to replace the singer who was too drunk to perform. Hands that operated the garbage truck Willie Mae worked on at age fourteen, a job offered to her because she was taller than the average boy. Hands that caught the attention of Diamond Teeth Mary, who, according to Willie Mae’s biographer, insisted that she get off that truck, “stop dressing like a boy,” and audition for Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue in 1940. And with those hands, she earned a place in the revue and a pathway out of her widowed father’s beloved Alabama. But still, Willie Mae, brilliantly stubborn, refused to stop “dressing like a boy.” She instead wore a double-breasted suit throughout her career, including the last time she performed on stage forty years later.
The stylistic elements in Willie Mae’s music were shaped by her eight-year stint with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue. She also worked the Chitlin’ Circuit, an underground network of events and venues that allowed Black artists who were excluded from white mainstream venues, to perform for their own communities in Blackowned clubs and makeshift spaces. Her experience in the 1940s revue and the 1950s Chitlin’ Circuit scene is essential to understanding her as an artist. With Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue, she was professionally trained as an interdisciplinary artist, performing as a singer, dancer, and comedian who played the drums and harmonica while adhering to the regional styles demanded by audiences. In this way, she echoed the renaissance qualities of Chitlin’ Circuit contemporaries like Little Richard and Moms Mabley, two crowd-pleasing queer artists with incredible showmanship, impeccable comedic timing, and largerthan-life personas.
No listening is complete without an ear tuned to her mastery of stage performance. A responsible Willie Mae listening practice means a commitment to seeing her perform live, even when there is little archival footage of her stage show available.
Promoters were so aware of her power as a live artist that they made sure to schedule her as the last performer on a bill. This was an act of mercy, for few artists could follow her. She was also one of a few women who performed the blues at state prisons, frequently singing love songs to the imprisoned male audience without bothering to change the pronouns from she to he.
Willie Mae’s innovative, improvisational songwriting along with her theatrical performances landed her in Europe in 1965 and 1972 as the only woman selected to headline the American Folk Blues Festival. And it was at this festival, which traveled to cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin, and London, that she introduced Europeans to the “Down Home Shakedown,” a song featuring a line of harmonica players: John Lee Hooker, Big Walter Horton, and Dr. Ross. Each blues giant watched for Willie Mae’s approval and instruction during the performance, which she granted through head nods and a call-and-response, harmonica-based, syncopated groove. What we’re talking about in the story of Willie Mae Thornton is the global reach of the Black South. Like Fannie Lou Hamer, she was a radical southerner.
Many residents in small southern towns like Ariton, Alabama, where Willie Mae was born, bought “race records” of early blues singers and developed their voices in the informal yet highly sophisticated musical training of the Black church. She wasn’t exposed to country and vaudeville blues until she left home. “The only thing I heard locally was spirituals,” she told producer Chris Strachwitz, “like quartets.” Yet every song and performance I’ve discovered through my deep dive into her discography offers a story that unfolds into what I call blues ministry: an integrated sound made up of jook joint decadence and old-time religion. Willie Mae, the daughter of a minister and a mother she described as “Christian-hearted,” made testifiers out of blues listeners. Blues ministry explains the centuries-old rift between spiritual and secular music. If the Black church was one of the first independent cultural institutions following the “emancipation” of formerly enslaved people, so too was the jook joint, where certain congregation members were as faithful to Saturday-night sinning as they were to Sunday-morning service. Blues ministry makes music out of the tension in these seemingly opposing forces; each note is a harmonious reckoning.
Willie Mae Thornton’s musical range, gender-nonconforming politics, and multifaceted talent make it tricky to define both her role in the industry and her place in music history. In Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, which served as one of the guiding voices for this book, Angela Davis notes that Black women were the first to record the blues; in the 1920s “hundreds of women had the opportunity to record their work, even though they were systematically denied the financial benefits of their labor and the social benefits of recognition.” This, too, is Willie Mae’s story. But more significant than this shared experience of exploitation and erasure is the political footing on which many women stood. Davis suggests the blueswomen from the 1920s “divulged unacknowledged traditions of feminist consciousness in working-class black communities.” This take on the blues gives me confidence to place her in a feminist blues tradition no matter where she fits on the music spectrum. Blues as ideology. Performance as resistance.
Willie Mae represents how musical cross-pollination was made possible through popular migration routes. One cannot discuss her legacy without mention of Mississippi Delta blues, Chicago blues, Memphis soul, Houston rhythm and blues, Alabama gospel, California Central Avenue jazz, New York bebop, Bay Area psychedelic rock, and Pacific Northwest folk. Her footprint as an artist can be found all over the map, and pieces of her story appear in the liner notes of artists she collaborated with or influenced throughout her journey. Willie Mae also surfaces in the work of scholars of the blues, R&B, soul, feminism, and genderqueer studies. Still, she and others are mostly missing from conversations about how Black women artists helped build the foundation for the multibillion-dollar American popular music industry. So it must be stated with certainty that Willie Mae Thornton, like Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters, shares the bill with the architects of rock ’n’ roll music. “Hound Dog,” as famous as it is, was merely an inkling of what she offered American rock ’n’ roll. Because this song and the story that surrounds it has been documented ad nauseam, I consciously sit with the stories on the edges of the song’s history. Yes, I believe Elvis Presley recorded “Hound Dog” because he heard Willie Mae embody the song’s sentiment with relentless conviction. Alice Walker shared a similar belief and used it as source material for her classic short story “Nineteen Fifty-Five.” But in shifting the context of “Hound Dog” by writing in fiction form, Walker gave us the language to call Willie Mae by a new name, all the more important since naming for Black people is a contested site.
A key question that emerged when I began writing Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters is what name I would call her throughout the book. Born Minnie Willie Mae Thornton, she was given the stage name “Big Mama” by the white Apollo manager Frank Schiffman during a 1950s residency of hers at the historic theater. I had grown uncomfortable with the name upon reading encountering too often the writing of journalists, critics, and fellow musicians who refer to her as “Big Mama” in a way that seemed to reduce her massive artistic presence to her physical size. Calling her “Big Mama” got in the way of her being seen or discussed as a serious musician. My apprehension about the “Big Mama” part of her name exists in a world where Black women of a certain stature get caught up in a collective American imagination that reads them as asexualized matriarchs carrying the nation and its children on their breasts. This is not the mothering that comes to mind when I think of the many Black women who collapsed or died while performing on stage or shortly thereafter (a list that includes Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Tammi Terrell, and Miriam Makeba). Too many of our aunties and Big Mamas have lived and died on stage, and for too long they carried the weight of white America through song.
The answer to the question of her name became clear upon watching footage of an interview with Ray Charles. When asked about Elvis, Charles broke down his frustration with Presley’s ascendance. He cited the reasons for his disapproval of the word “king” to describe Presley: “He was doing our kind of music. He was doing the Willie Mae Thornton . . . that’s Black music, so what the hell am I supposed to get so excited about, man?” It was in that moment that I realized Ray Charles had removed “Big Mama” and put the word “the” in front of Willie Mae’s name, as if she were a dance craze circulating in a secret society where only insiders had access to the coded movement. In this universe Elvis was denied entry. I call her Willie Mae throughout the book because of what I felt when Ray Charles called her Willie Mae. I wrote this book because in the name Willie Mae Thornton is the sound of Black musical resilience.
When I searched for more clues about Willie Mae’s story I discovered that not a single American had written her biography. A full interrogation of her meaning to the world of music has only been done once before. That’s how I ended up in Düsseldorf, Germany, in the summer of 2018, to meet the lone biographer of Willie Mae Thornton, Michael Spörke. Michael was generous from our first email interaction and welcomed my visit with the promise of an interview and a peek at his sources. Michael managed to find friends, family, and colleagues of Willie Mae’s who understood the value of oral history and the art of animated storytelling. In our interview, he spoke extensively about wanting to clear Willie Mae’s name. He felt that stories that still circulated in the industry painted her as a mean, violent drunk instead of an assertive and unfeminine woman who questioned the business practices of the men whom she trusted with her career. Her politics of refusal had everything to do with the integrity in her sound, and he knew this. She refused to be quiet when her money was on the line, refused to wear a dress as she was expected to, and refused to sing songs the way producers envisioned them.
He also wanted to put to rest the rumors surrounding her sexuality. Throughout his book, he references how often people within her circle stated emphatically that Willie Mae was a lesbian. Spörke, with great passion, lamented that they never provided evidence for this assertion. It was as though he was protecting her from the mere possibility of being queer, and therefore missed an opportunity to add a more layered story about her life. Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters is not invested in filing her under the Black blues lesbian category. Instead, through the careful examination of her music, I would like to make space for her to exist on the spectrum of sexuality without having either one of us lay claim to a singular sexual identity. Maybe the most radical thing Willie Mae left behind is that she did not identify as queer or butch or lesbian or gay—at least not publicly. My sense is that she didn’t hate wearing dresses; she loved wearing pants. Willie Mae always carried a harmonica on her; dresses provided fewer options to store her tools.
Writing this book as a Californian Black queer woman who grew up in the 1980s hip-hop era allows for a unique telling of her journey. I am committed to adding a nuanced read on Willie Mae Thornton that is more humanizing and less cis-heteronormative than what has come before. To share why she matters is to build on Spörke’s work and offer to her life a new level of intimacy, one that comes from a sense of fictive kinship—me as the long-lost niece with familial knowing. And as her niece I experienced days when I felt like Willie Mae called me to be a voice on her life’s page. On some days I felt chosen and equipped; on other days, overwhelmed and irresponsible. Who was I to step into her world and piece together a cohesive literary survey on her movement through Black music? How could this be done with the one biography that existed and the fragmented history I was left to decipher? Finally, the answer became clear. It was my job as a Black queer DJ and scholar to approach this biography as I would a mixtape. Willie Mae’s story, in my hands, emerges from the mixtape process.
Mixtapes tell the story of your skills; they function like an archive of the community’s musical tastes as shaped by DJs. Adam Banks describes the DJ as one who is “standing between tradition and future, holding the power to shape how both are seen/heard/felt/known. Exhibiting mastery of techniques, but always knowing that techniques carry stories, arguments, ways of viewing the world, that the techniques arrange the texts, that every text carries even more stories, arguments, epistemologies.” My relationship with the needle, and what happens when it’s dropped on a piece of vinyl, is what taught me how to write this book. The Willie Mae literary mixtape results from years spent determining the value of songs, reading and writing liner notes, studying album cover art, chasing samples, digging through the crates, and—like the Zulu Nation—“looking for the perfect beat,” but also “lookin’ searchin’ seekin’ and findin’” the metaphoric unmarked graves of women musicians, producers, and performers who helped develop my ear. This is DJ scholarship, a term I coined in 2013 to introduce to the culture a methodological intervention.
So yes, my job is to remember and remake the story, even if that story is a collection of small parts that compose the whole. A mixtape is, after all, a sound collage of found objects, people, places, and concepts used to create a composition. That said, I admit, there are times when you will read this Willie Mae story and get lost until you catch the beat. This is not your typical biography. This journey into Willie Mae’s life reads more like a biography in essays. I appear in some chapters using personal experiences and memories to get close to Willie Mae’s sound. In other chapters I disappear altogether to let her journey take center stage. There are unexpected comparisons between Willie Mae and artists like Roxanne Shanté and connections made between Texas R&B and Jamaican ska. The record of Willie Mae’s absence from the annals of music history speaks to an ongoing politic of erasure of Black women cultural producers, in both the music industry and American society at large. Because of the generation she belonged to, we’ve run out of time to survey and secure accounts of her greatness and artistry from living witnesses. Very few of her contemporaries are still with us. Now is the time to create a mixtape for why she matters. I believe she died knowing what she did, for America, for Black music, and that brings me the most comfort when sitting with her archive. I hope to fill the gaps in her story with a politic of care. To blend, as a DJ would, her life of touching histories. Her righteous anger motivates me, especially the cases in which she transforms it into a playful threat and a sound cloud to which we are invited to look up and stand under. This book is a love letter from one difficult woman to another.
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.