SheShe Dance takes stage as legendary Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
Her voice is as big as her personality—and it’s a personality that can fill a football stadium. She’s larger than life, boisterous, no-nonsense and wildly talented. She is Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, though the same description could easily apply to local powerhouse Azusa “SheShe” Dance, who is set to portray her this month in Jazzanooga’s “The Life and Times of Big Mama Thornton,” running Friday, Feb. 27 and Saturday, Feb. 28 at The Camp House.
“Some people will probably never know the name ‘Big Mama Thornton,’” says Shane Morrow, co-founder of Jazzanooga, “but they should.” It’s this belief that led Morrow to create and develop a one-woman show paying tribute to the woman who originally recorded Leiber and Stoller’s classic “Hound Dog” before Elvis Presley made it famous, and wrote the Janis Joplin hit “Ball ‘n’ Chain.”
According to various sources, during her career, Thornton was nominated for the Blues Music Awards six times. In 1984, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In addition to “Ball ‘n’ Chain” and “They Call Me Big Mama,” Thornton wrote 20 other blues songs. Her “Ball ‘n’ Chain” is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.” And yet, her name is not widely known outside the music community, but it will be, if Jazzanooga has anything to say about it.
Born just outside Montgomery, Alabama, Thornton grew up listening to and being influenced by the gospel music of the Baptist church and rhythm and blues artists she admired and emulated. She became a rock-and-roll trailblazer, paving the way for some of the most notable icons in American music. It is that history, and her Southern roots and feminist trailblazing that intrigued Morrow and inspired his desire to share her story. “I just felt,” he says, “that she was one of the real pioneers of rock-and-roll. She originated her sound from the South and not just with blues, but with gospel and jazz. She was a huge admirer of Bessie Smith.”
Morrow says this fact, along with her connection to Elvis, gave the show a local element that also appealed to his desire to tell her story. “She never got the recognition she really deserved,” he says. “It was just an intriguing story to me and I thought someone should be sharing this history about this young lady and that’s why I dove into it.” He decided that the best way to tell the story of the independent, fiery and formidable talent was for it to be a one-woman show and, he explains, “I thought there could be nobody better than SheShe.”
Playing the role of Thornton was a long-held goal for Dance, who began talking to Morrow about the project nearly three years ago. “When he explained to me how he wanted to set it up, I thought, ‘Well, that’s going to be really cool!’ It’s going to be something different,” she says. Dance, much like Thornton, is larger than life, easily rising to the task of playing such a fierce character. The show lends itself to her ability to command an audience by allowing her to hold court not only onstage, but in the style of a cabaret performance, getting up and moving about the house.
“This show is very different compared to what people are normally used to going into the theater,” Dance says. “It’s going to be more cabaret-style. It won’t be me just on the stage as a one-woman show. I’ll be out and about in the crowd getting them involved, too.”
Morrow and Dance believe that Big Mama Thornton’s story is worthy of attention, and that this show is not to be missed. “It’s just something different,” Dance says. “You can’t walk into anywhere in Chattanooga and get, 1) a one-woman show; 2) that cabaret style; and 3) a history lesson. So, it’s kind of like you’re getting three bangs for your buck on top of the people you may see there and some songs that may be familiar. It’s going to be a good time.” Morrow echoes this sentiment, praising Dance’s portrayal of this complex songstress and says, “You may not have known the name, but you’ll definitely know the spirit.”
“The Life and Times of Big Mama Thornton”
7:30 p.m. February 27-28
The Camp House, 149 E. MLK Blvd.