seventies and early eighties, Thornton typically wore suits with cowboy boots and a hat, a practice she continued until her death in 1984 at the age of 57.In her last performances, Big Mama dressed as she pleased onstage and offstage.By the 1980s Little Richard spoke openly about the gender and sexual transgressions of his youth, and he also took credit for helping make gender nonconformity part of rock ’n’ roll. He acknowledged his influence in a 1984 interview: “Michael, David Bowie, Boy George, they’ve got my spot now.”78Jimi Hendrix joined Little Richard’s touring band in 1964, and the Seattle-born guitarist counted the Georgia showman as an enduring influence. Little Richard noted that Hendrix played B. B. King–style blues when they first met, but the guitarist “started rocking” and changed his personal appearance after joining the band, donning head wraps in the style of his idol: “He began to dress like me and he even grew a little mustache like mine.”79Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton demonstrate that the gender nonconformity found in rock ’n’ roll since its inception has been influenced by black queer performance.
|75Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, and the Queer Roots of Rock ‘n’ RollNotesI would like to thank my grandmother and father, Mary Strawder and Andrew Steptoe Jr., for giv-ing me the photograph of my grandfather and Willie Mae Thornton that inspired this piece. The Department of History at the University of Arizona helped me tremendously by holding a writing workshop in which dozens of my colleagues read and critiqued an early draft. I am especially grateful for the feedback from Katie Hemphill and Erika Pérez. Thank you, Steve Johnstone, for organizing the workshop. I also appreciate Pop Conference participants in Seattle, such as Sonnet Retman and Elijah Wald, who asked crucial questions that pushed me to fine-tune my arguments. As I reworked my ideas for the final version of this essay, Dave Gilbert’s feedback and encouragement were particularly helpful. Special thanks to Jerome Dotson for reading drafts and giving me a vinyl recording of Big Mama in Europe.1. “Big Mama Talks with Chris Strachwitz,” Big Mama in Europe, Arhoolie (2005); Michael Spörke,Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014), 26. Peacock owner Don Robey also controlled Duke Records, so the label is also known as Duke-Peacock Records. See Alan Govenar,The Early Years of Rhythm and Blues: Focus on Houston(Houston: Rice University Press, 1990).2. On Thornton’s influence and legacy, see Jack Halberstam, “Queer Voices and Musical Genders,” in Oh Boy! Masculinities in Popular Music, ed. Freya Jarman-Ivens (New York: Routledge, 2007), 183–95; Maureen Mahon, “Listening for Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton’s Voice: The Sound of Race and Gender Transgressions in Rock and Roll,” Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 15 (2011): 1–17.3. Quoted in Richard Harrington, “A Wopbopaloobop,” Washington Post, November 12, 1984.