Big Mama Thornton died in a boarding house in 1984. She improvised a lot of the hit Hound Dog - "So I started to sing the words and join in some of my own. All that talkin' and hollerin'--that's my own." - after Lieber and Stoller wrote it for her. Her income from that song, a big hit record for her that sold two million copies? "I got one check for $500 and I never seen another."
She lived the archetypal life of a blues singer, learning her music as a child in church, dying before she was sixty after years of alcohol and other excess. Here's an anecdote:
I interviewed Big Mama at her Los Angeles home in 1978. She drank a milky liquid from a gin bottle and told me how Johnny Ace shot himself in the head in their dressing room. Johnny was sitting with girlfriend Olivia on his lap, waving his pistol around, pointing it at Willie Mae. "Don't snap that on me," she told him. Johnny grinned and put the gun to Olivia's head. "Stop that, Johnny, you'll git someone killed," Willie Mae shouted at him. "Nothin' to worry about," Johnny replied, coolly, "ain't but one bullet here and I know exactly where it is." He turned the gun on himself, put it to his temple and pulled the trigger. And that was that. It was Christmas Eve, 1954, in Houston, Texas.