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Author DJ Lynnée Denise on 'Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters'

Come Sunday host Lezlie Harrison speaks with author and DJ Lynnée Denise about her debut book Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters. This text “samples” elements of Thornton’s art—and occasionally the author’s own story—to create “a biography in essays” that explores the life of its subject as a DJ might dig through a crate of records. In this conversation, they unpack the legacy of Thornton and celebrate her contributions to American music.

This Interview transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Lezlie Harrison: Tell me about your growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s. You talk about how the music that you listened to, how it shaped you. So tell me a little bit about that record collection that your parents had, how that started you on your journey to writing this book.

Lynnée Denise: Thank you so much. I love that you are starting this with my parents’ record collection. I want to talk about how my mother signed her albums, which is a very kind of super intimate, but also kind of protective way to manage your archive. Certainly as a child, I wasn't thinking Mama is organizing her archives. But when I look back now and think about the role of marking your name on albums in Black households, it means something to me about what music means to us, as a community, but also in my family.

I was informally trained as a deep listener by the fact that my mother was listening to a lot of ‘70s funk, a lot of Bootsy Collins, Parliament, late Marvin Gaye, Rick James and stuff. Then she went into Mtume, SOS Band, Lakeside…

A real funkateer.

Shout out to Ohio and the Dazz band and the Ohio Players. That's what Mama was listening to. Mama was on some serious funk. My sister, on the other hand, was listening to Rick Dees’ Top 40 stuff. I was just very much studying my big sister and her listening practices. Rick Dees’ Top 40 ‘80s stuff meant New Wave stuff. It meant Devo, it meant Adam Ant, it meant of course, Madonna and Prince and all these other folks that kind of define the ‘80s and that time. And then my dad is a hardcore jazz man. He was listening to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery. I think the combination, I hear myself describing my own record collection as a DJ. That collection consists of funk and new wave and hip hop and soul and jazz. Then because I had been trained in that context, I was able to expand and have curiosity lead my interest in Black music globally. So I started to listen to Black British music. I started to listen to reggae from Jamaica and then eventually South African Kweto and house music and Brazilian bossa nova. So the local sort of expanded into the global based on what happened once my Mama signed her name on those albums and taught me what it means to kind of organize and respect your collection and your listening practice.

Where did Willie Mae Thornton come into your listening sphere?

First of all, I really appreciate how you're being conscious about the name. I really do. And I appreciate that you posted online that you were reading it. That means a lot to me because people oftentimes ask writers the question of like, who are you writing for? I'm certainly writing for radio DJs, I'm writing for music enthusiasts, community folks who don't see themselves in texts that are supposedly about them. But I like that you made the correction because I made the political decision to use her full name as the title of the book and not her stage name because I wanted to remove some of the angst and some of the stories and some of the narrative around the name Big Mama Thornton, which is a name that was given to her by a white Apollo manager, Frank Shiffman, at the time in the 1950s, when she was in a residency there for a week. And listen, she embraced the name as a stage name, but I got to know a person named Willie Mae Thornton.

You even make a reference to the fact that she often referred to herself in the third person, Big Mama, and you say she embraced and weaponized the title Big Mama, and she used it when she needed it to get a point across when she needed to. She used it as a weapon as well.

Absolutely. She would say things in songs like, “You keep talking and Big Mama's going to throw this rock at your head.” Very clear that she can and will embody that character.

Don't mess with Big Mama.

But Willie Mae is also a witness in the same way that we are. She is witnessing, because Willie Mae exists long before Big Mama. Long before. So this is about a person's evolution, transformation, the shape shifting, the kind of multiple characters that sometimes live inside of us. It makes me think of these kind of almost like literary tricksters like Zora Neale Hurston, who gives you the impression through her writing that she is existing in these stories through these different characters. almost that she is a witness of her own life or her own storytelling and the way that she fabricates that is entertaining for us as readers.

But anyway, I was approached by the University of Texas Press to submit a proposal for a book as a part of their Why Music Matters series. Because this was like what late, I think like maybe 2017, 2018, we were still reeling from the death of Prince at that time, even though he passed in 2016, that was one of those deaths that just lingers, because it was so unexpected. They asked me to write a book about Prince and why Prince matters. But by that time I had come across this video of a performance of Willie Mae in the early 1970s. And I was like, I love Prince. I know Prince. I can write about Prince and so can and have a million others.

And no one has written…no, that's not true. One German biographer wrote about Willie Mae. His name is Michael Sporke and he's based in Dusseldorf, Germany. I wanted to know what it might be like to search and dig through these fragmented histories to find this story and to amplify her importance beyond the fact that she performed “Hound Dog” first, which I feel like in the realm of what she offered this universe and what she offers Black music is a glimpse, a snippet of her significance. And so I said to them, I want to do a story. I want to write a book on this woman, knowing there was one biography, like knowing I would really have to do some deep work, to tell a whole story. Let me be clear that the Why Music Matters series is different in that they asked us to include a sort of personal narrative when telling the story. I they asked us to kind of think through lyrics critically, which you would anyway in a biography, I assume. They asked us to think about the social and political context, which is what I do anyway under the umbrella of DJ Scholarship. And so it made sense for me and I just took on the challenge.

Thank you so much for taking on that challenge. What were some of the ways that Willie Mae Thornton challenged gender roles and expectations?

I want folks to feel comfortable calling her Big Mama. I don't want to have people feel shame around calling her what she sometimes called herself. It is an interesting thing around naming Black people.

We all have a Big Mama in our family.

We all have a Big Mama in our family. We all have nicknames and we all have other chosen names. We all have names that are assigned to us. Of course, it's a little more racialized because of who named her and what the connotation is of Big Mama, once it leaves our hands. And then what a Black big bodied woman becomes in the public imagination sometimes differs from who we know to be Big Mama at the house.

So, in terms of gender and how she was shaking things up, it takes me back to the first time that she is quote unquote discovered by someone who I believe becomes one of her blues mothers and that is Diamond Teeth Mary. Willie Mae took the very typical route in the Black South in the 1940s where her mother died at an early age and she did domestic work sometimes within her family in different parts of Alabama or sometimes in the homes of white folks. But she oftentimes was hustling and sort of standing outside of clubs trying to get in or had gotten jobs inside of clubs, cleaning spittoons.

One of those odd jobs as a hustler and a young woman included working on a garbage truck. Diamond Teeth Mary sees her and hears her singing. So even though she grows up in a religious home, her father is a minister. Her mother, she called her a Christian-hearted woman. She grew up listening to spirituals, not necessarily blues. But she gets out into that world and she has a voice and she sings what she knows. Then she's heard by Diamond Teeth Mary. One of the moments about that discovery is that Diamond Teeth tells her, “Hey, you need to come in and audition for Sammy Green's Revue and while you're at it, get out of them boy clothes.” This is one of the earliest times when her gender is addressed. And it's addressed in the context of what the opportunities are if she maybe conforms.

I'm not saying that Diamond Teeth Mary was out here pushing a gender agenda. But I'm just talking about tradition and whatever that means. And politics of gender that come out of the Black church. Just the way that we are all indoctrinated into a patriarchal system that has rigid gender lines and norms. Willie Mae was like, “I'm really not about that.” And she couldn't be. There are some people who can't be. Who literally could try, but look awkward in a dress, or men who could try, but look awkward in a suit because that is not who they are. I just think that she tried to be other things, but she would always rebel.

An example of that may mean was when she was finally signed, there was a woman named Evelyn Johnson who was assigned to kind of oversee her career, her management and her style. They would try to get her to wear dresses and oftentimes she'd have on that dress. But by the end of the night, or perhaps before she reached the stage, there would be some altering of that outfit or a complete removal of it. And then like maybe, something that matches who she is and what her essence is. So she was fighting with the record industry to kind of protect the integrity of how she wanted to present gender.

How did Miss Thornton's experiences as a Black woman in the blues industry shape her feminism?

I don't know. I love that question for the simple fact that, here's what I'm clear about. Willie Mae hasn't been here since 1984, and not at any point does she refer to herself as queer, as lesbian, as feminist. But what we do know is that based on those definitions, and the decisions she made, the choices she made, that she fits comfortably under certain categories, like what it means to be gender queer, what it means to be feminist.

Angela Davis writes an incredible book about what could be called and what she calls and refers to as a kind of working class feminism. And that could be the feminism that shows up in prisons and women prisons. That those women who are in those cages and who have been in prison are not necessarily thinking about themselves as feminists, but some of those practices and those survival strategies fall under the category of feminism, where they may be critical of patriarchy and it may be articulated through whatever their practices are. It may be as singers. It may be as comedians. It may be as storytellers. And maybe as the griots of their family where they are calling out grandpa for what he did.

I think what Willie Mae was like, “Here's what's not going to happen. Y'all are not going to take my money from me because I'm a woman. You guys are not going to limit me as a musician to my voice. I am going to play harmonica and I am going to play the drums.” Those are two instruments alone that are sort of reserved for blues men. Blues men are sort of sold to us as these kind of lone men who are traveling the South, working from place to place with a guitar or a harmonica, jumping on train to train. But the truth is that there is a relationship between that story and what happens in terms of gender and who has to stay behind to sort of raise the family. That women are oftentimes not given the privilege to roam. Here, Willie Mae is roaming with an instrument, playing drums, refusing to wear dresses, pretty much playing with only men.

How do you think her sexuality and gender expression informed her music?

I don't know what her sexuality was. There's an important thing around the limitations that I had to ask myself the question of “Am I trying to crack that code? Am I trying to solve that mystery? And why? Do I need that?” But there are interesting things that she did and how she played with pronouns and gender in the music. One example of that may mean maybe her covering a blues song that was written by a man or written with a man in mind, speaking to a woman and she doesn't bother to change the pronoun.

That's another side of the story.

It's still mysterious in a way that it should be. Who knows if she's queer, not just because she did that? A great example of that is, as a kid, I felt like Luther Vandross was gay. I didn't know. I just felt like, I don't know. I felt like his sensuality that came through the music was reserved for a man. I don't know. I didn't have any context. But I just felt like it was for men, but that pronoun would stand out to me when Luther would say “She and her” it never necessarily resonated. It was almost I was like, “I don’t know.” That's fine. And listen, the irony is the number of children born under his name. So it works for reproduction, you know what I mean? But spirit wise, those pronouns are tricky. Who knows who people are and who they're singing to and who they're portraying as a narrator of a song?

Lezlie Harrison is her own personal renaissance. Her constant state of evolution and growth brings with it, gifts for those those paying attention.