When Big Mama Thornton took to the stage, she not only owned it but opened it up, knocking down walls and boundaries with every note she sang. Thornton was one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, most deserving of an enduring legacy. But she is also largely forgotten, even though she penned some of the most iconic tracks in existence, including “Hound Dog” (made famous by Elvis Presley), “Ball and Chain” and “Let’s Dance.”
At six feet tall and weighing in at over 300 pounds, Thornton was known for often wearing men’s clothing while filling stages with her unmistakable howl. The indomitable blues-singing innovator is a difficult presence to emulate. Not just anyone could tell her story and bring her narrative to life onstage, but Azusa Sheshe Dance isn’t just anyone.
When she stepped onstage at the MIST Theatre—Harlem’s largest all-Black-owned stage—to preview two songs from her original show, Houn’ Dawg: Life & Times of Big Mama Thornton, you could feel shockwaves of energy and love reverberating all around the room. Dance’s performance is kind of thing you really have to see for yourself to believe. Hers is a stage presence so captivating, you can’t help but feel like you’re witnessing something out of history, something the universe has conspired to create.
Big Mama Thornton’s story has lain buried under layers of cultural and structural discrimination that relegated her to silence for far too long, exacerbated by a double bind of sexism and racism that she faced all her life. But that pain bubbles to the surface and is re-channeled into energy when Dance sings her songs. In every note you can hear that pain along with the joy, heartbreak and sheer creative brilliance that both these women possess.
Houn’ Dawg is a must-see production. The show is at Harlem MIST on August 3rd, and who knows where it’ll go from there—the sky is truly the limit.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Azusa, whose luminous presence, passion, and humility made the world drop away for the duration of the interview. She spoke about how she created her breakout show (despite having no musical theatre writing experience), how she discovered Big Mama Thornton (also a Bessie Smith fan raised on church music) and how she came to musical theatre (reluctantly). Hers is a story that shows us age holds no bounds over what you can create, that shows that no matter who you are or where you are in your life, you can move to New York and see your wildest dreams come true.
Willie Mae Thornton died in a boarding house in California, broke, having only earned $500 from all the sales of Hound Dog. But no longer is her story going to remain forgotten; Dance will make you sure of that. It will make your heart start beating faster, make you cry and fill your soul with joy and a feeling of connection to something much greater than yourself.
EDEN GORDON: Can you tell me a little about how you started working on the show?
AZUSA SHESHE DANCE: About seven or eight years ago a friend of mine and I were talking when he suddenly stopped, looked at me and laughing said, “You remind me of somebody so much.” I asked him who and it was Big Mama Thornton. When I told him I didn’t know who she was, he said, “How dare you not know who she is. Look her up!”
So, I did. I listened to her music, learned about some of her history, and then I saw that she originally recorded “Hound Dog” before Elvis, only it was Elvis who made it famous.
After that, my friend asked me to sing “Hound Dog” in his group. I said, “Me?!” After watching her videos, I told him, “I cannot sing, I cannot play her, that’s too intimidating.” He said I could do it, that everything about me reminded him of Willie Mae. “You own the stage, she owns the stage, you have a great time, people love you, and it’s a great fit,” he told me. So, I learned “Hound Dog”and it became my signature song, even here in New York.
Later on, I portrayed her in a play where I sang “Ball n’ Chain”. Afterwards, I did a version of her story in Chattanooga, Tennessee where I’m from. When I came to New York in 2017, people kept telling me about the United Solo Festival, which features [only] one-person shows. I loved Big Mama Thornton’s story so much, I thought, let me see what I can do to put together my own show but when I looked at the deadline for the festival, I had less than a month to send in a submission.
I don’t think I’m a writer, but apparently, I am. After days and nights of no sleep, no nothing, I am on the Internet, I’m looking at stuff, I’m listening to her music, thinking about how to put it all together. I get it submitted, but before I hit “send”, I think to myself, “I don’t know why you’re doing this. You are not a writer and where the heck in New York are you gonna find a juke joint blues band to even play this music?”
Ultimately, I decided to let go and let God. This is October of 2017. I didn’t think anything else about it. Then around the following February or March, I get an email and it says—we are so excited, congratulations, we have selected your show and we want you to perform it.
I was floored. I had to sleep on the email to believe it.
When I submitted the play, I didn’t know anyone who could even play juke joint blues from the south. I had only been here a year and a half, but—and this is how ironic it is—that January, I was singing in a subway—I sing with Music Under New York, that’s how I pay my bills—when a guy walks up to me and asks if he can record me, and I’m like, “Yeah.” So, there I am singing and he asks me if I’m in a band, I say, “No.” He says, “Do you want to be?” I said, “Yes,” and before I leave the subway, he’s given me information and a rehearsal time. I don’t know him, I don’t know the band or anything, but I showed up anyway and we recorded two songs, which went great. And then he asked me, “Is there anything you’re passionate about?” and I started to say, “Well I love Big Mama Thornton,” but before I could even get her whole name out, the guitar player was playing “They Call Me Big Mama.” All I could do was look to the heavens, and be like, yes.
The universe was conspiring.
After I’d been singing with that band for about two months, I got that email telling me I’d been accepted to the festival and so I asked the band members if they’d be interested in playing for the show. They got excited and said they would love to.
We did two shows at the United Solo Festival, both sold out. They were absolutely fantastic and people were on their feet, they had a blast. We ended up winning Best Concert Award. Afterwards, we went at played at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. They have a Black History and Cultural Center called the Sonya Haynes Stone Center. Four hundred people showed up and again everyone had a great time. I keep pinching myself, asking myself if this is really happening.
[Producer] Norman Cole came to both shows at the United Solo Festival and asked me if I wanted to perform it for a networking system. So now, through him, I’ll be doing it at the Harlem MIST on August 3.
That’s it in a nutshell, minus all the ugly stuff in between—the low nights worrying, trying to figure out how to do music copyrights and how to get a team together—but not one person I asked said no. Now I have a creative team that works with me along with a band and even mentors and advisors, people who have worked and produced shows before. All of them were so generous and so kind to take time with me. I’d never written or produced before, so it’s very enlightening and it makes you appreciate other people. First, I was a singer and actor but now I’m on other side, and I appreciate all the people who’ve helped me so much.
Creating a show is a lot of work, for sure.
Plus, I was on a deadline. I wrote and submitted it in October and November. They selected me in February/March and the show started in September. In that time, I got my team together and it’s a great team. I’ll be bringing them with me here, and then who knows where we’ll go.
As for Big Mama Thornton’s story, at 14-years-old she left home. She was from Ariton, Alabama, one of six brothers and sisters; her daddy was a preacher and her mother was a church singer. As soon as she left the house, she was working. She worked a shoe-shine stand, she worked at a salon, she worked on a garbage truck; she did anything and everything she did to survive, because her dream was to be a singer.
Her idol was Bessie Smith. I’m originally from Mega, Tennessee, which is Bessie Smith’s home town, another reason I feel so connected to Big Mama Thornton.
She had some hard times, not only because of her size. She stood over six feet tall, weighed over three hundred pounds, and she overpowered other men but she was still only one of a handful of women in the blues business traveling on the road. They didn’t want to pay her; they always thought she was less than any of them, though she was really better than a lot of the people she performed with. She always carried her liquor and pistol in her purse. She would drive herself to all of her gigs because she didn’t trust other people to make sure she got there on time.
She was harsh, but she was also loving with her band. She was harsh in you played her music, her way or you had no business there. But on that same note, she would cook for them, check in on them, make sure they were okay—it was a love-hate relationship; I need you to do my music right but I do care about you. She did a lot of touring. Janis Joplin heard her sing “Ball n’ Chain” in California and loved it so much she got permission from Big Mama to sing the song. But the difference between Elvis and Janis Joplin was that Janis Joplin told everyone that Big Mama wrote it, gave her credit and some of the money.
At the end of Big Mama Thornton’s life, she was drinking a lot, and eventually ended up dying in California in a boarding house, a broke woman. She had only gotten paid $500 for “Hound Dog,” period.
I’m quite sure there are tons of other stories out there like it but I love her story, her size, her gut, her grit, and even that she always wore men’s clothing; that’s just what she was comfortable in. It didn’t mean that she was straight or gay. A lot of people say they never saw her with either one. Everyone was always trying to fit her into the industry, putting her in a dress, putting her in heels, putting her in earrings.
It’s amazing how things change, but they don’t. Why couldn’t they just accept that she liked wearing men’s clothes, that’s what she was comfortable in?
I love music because it’s universal—you don’t have to know it or the language or the lyrics—but this particular type of blues is kind of getting lost. A lot of people don’t sing it as much anymore; you don’t have a lot of blues bars or sets that feature it. You’ll find more clubs playing it down south—but for me to bring back that music and this story…I am honored. I just pray and hope that Big Mama is smiling, and she’s proud, because it’s been a fantastic roller coaster ride, just being introduced to her, learning about her, portraying her, moving to New York, writing my own show, and watching it pick up. I couldn’t ask for anything better.
That’s a very inspiring and incredible story, and I think it’s probably not the end of the roller coaster. In terms of the writing, it’s amazing that you’d never written before.
I mean, I’d written essays in college—I have two degrees, an associate’s and a bachelor’s degree. Also, I used to work at the Youth Department in my church, but I never really liked the book of plays that we’d get, so I would write out skits and shows for the kids.
I always think it’s funny how life gives you stepping stones and you don’t even realize it, but it all comes together later on. If somebody had told me, 20-25 years ago, that I’d be living in New York doing a one-woman show that’d be a big hit about Big Mama Thornton, and its blues, I would’ve been like, “Yeah, right.”
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. She has written for Catalyst, Lilith Magazine, and Untapped Cities, and is the founder and editor of Crossroads Zine. Follow her on Instagram at @edenariel117 and Twitter at @edenarielmusic.