Barbara Morrison Stars as “Big Mama” Thornton in New Production
Legendary blues and jazz singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was the first to record “Hound Dog,” which Elvis Presley later popularized, and she wrote and first recorded one of Janis Joplin’s biggest hits, “Ball and Chain.” Howlin’ Blues & Dirty Dogs, at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood, Calif., presents her life story in the form of music, dancing, comedy and drama through Aug. 10. Barbara Morrison (pictured) stars.
The Theatre Perception Consortium wrote and produced the musical, which premiered on July 11.
Thornton began touring as part of the Georgia-based Hot Harlem Revue, where she spent seven years performing. Her recording career began in 1951 when Peacock Records signed her to a contract. Her biggest hit, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Hound Dog,” was No. 1 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart for nine weeks in 1953. Three years later, Presley recorded his chart-topping version.
Nicknamed “Big Mama” for her stature—she stood more than six feet tall and weighed more than 300 pounds—Thornton was one of the first prominent female blues singers, influenced by singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.
Her 1968 album Ball n’ Chain featured Lightnin’ Hopkins on guitar and Larry Williams on vocals. Thornton’s career faded in the ’70s and she died of liver failure in 1984.
Jazz vocalist Morrison will fill Big Mama’s shoes during the show. A full-time touring musician, Morrison has performed with Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett and Etta James, to name a few.
Other cast members include Larney Johnson as Johnny Otis and Don Robey, and Lou Beatty Jr. as Sammy Green. Larry James Robinson serves as technical director and Clara Dupree Clark directs. Clark previously co-wrote and directed the Theatre Perception Consortium production North on Central Avenue.
Performances of Howlin’ Blues & Dirty Dogs take place every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., as well as Sundays at 7 p.m. until Aug. 10. General admission tickets cost $35.