Maybe it seems redundant at this point to mention the obvious disparity in honorees where the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and female artists are concerned. While Elvis has been in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for three decades, the woman who can partially be thanked for his breakthrough success has yet to be acknowledged formally by the RRHOF, yet her most famous songs appear on their list of “500 Songs that Shaped Rock & Roll.”
In 1956, Elvis sky-rocketed to success with the single “Heartbreak Hotel.” The song that would become his best-selling, however, was “Hound Dog,” performed that same year on “The Steve Allen Show.” While most people would quickly associate that well known twelve-bar blues tune with Elvis, it was actually made famous four years prior when it was recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton — a then 25-year-old African-American woman from Alabama with a big personality and even bigger voice. Her original recording of “Hound Dog” reached number one on the R&B charts. Thornton, unlike Elvis, received far less compensation, next to no credit, and while the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is happy to name her songs as those that shaped and influenced the birth of an entire genre, they don’t seem too hasty to give her the space and recognition she more than deserves as an inductee.
“Hound Dog” isn’t the only major credit to Big Mama Thornton’s name. In 1967, a little festival known as Monterey Pop was organized by Lou Adler and John Phillips. Over the course of three days, Monterey Pop became an historic event that launched the careers of rock & rollers who had been struggling up to that point to break through. Janis Joplin was one of those artists. Janis and Big Brother’s performance of “Ball and Chain” that weekend was so great it was performed twice — once for their originally planned performance, and once for filming. Janis’s influence? The original belter and writer of that song – Big Mama Thornton.
It certainly wasn’t uncommon for white performers to make names for themselves by covering songs originally written or performed by black R&B artists. The difference here is that even many of those black male artists have long since been recognized by the RRHOF, including, but not limited to: Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and Little Richard, whose songs were covered by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pat Boone, and others.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton is one of many women eligible for induction, and she’s been eligible for almost 40 years. It’s time for her to have a place amongst the leading performers and influencers in rock music, as she’s more than surpassed her induction qualification of having had a “significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.”
As it stands, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame currently has 317 inductees. Thirty-one years of inducting, 317 inductees, and somehow, they’ve only managed to come up with 38 women, and bands including women (half of the female inductees were inducted with men), who are worthy of acknowledgment. This isn’t the first time this subject has been broached, and until there’s a significant change in the induction demographic, it won’t be the last. It’s important to note here that no one is asking the RRHOF to induct women because they’re women, although that should go without saying; we’re asking the RRHOF to induct them because they’re amazing at what they do. It’s high time they were shown the same appreciation for their contributions to rock & roll as their male counterparts.