Stories described her as intimidating, but she had no power over a music business she considered unfair.
Although her warmth was known to friends, others only saw her become an angry, emaciated woman who took to drink and died of cirrhosis of the liver. Born in Montgomery, Alabama, on Dec. 11, 1926, Thornton took to the road as a teenager and ended up in Houston, where she made her first recordings with Don Robey’s Peacock label. Her 1953 Peacock single “Hound Dog” was her only record to hit the R&B charts, but it went to No. 1. After Elvis Presley made an even bigger hit of it in 1956, Thornton reaped little benefit: royalties went to songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller but not to her.
Her act made her a popular attraction on rhythm & blues revues with Johnny Otis and others, but major fame eluded her. Her association with Arhoolie brought her new acclaim, and one of her 1968 recordings, “Ball and Chain,” became a rock classic for Janis Joplin.
She continued to tour and record as her health deteriorated, and she was found dead at her Los Angeles apartment on July 25, 1984.