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Nashville singer on the big screen as Big Mama Thornton in new Elvis film

Shonka Dukareh
Posted at 7:32 PM, Jun 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-28 23:42:33-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — There are so many artists who were unsung in their times. But a local singer has been given the incredible opportunity to share the story of an architect of rock 'n' roll with the world. In fact, you might have seen her film already. It's currently sitting at No.1 on the box office chart.

All around the city, you see murals of all those legendary voices, the music pioneers. Someone you don't find on a lot of murals around the country is Big Mama Thornton, the original singer of "Hound Dog." Thornton's was out in 1953, three years before "Hound Dog" became an eleven-week No.1 hit for Elvis Presley.

Thornton was also a writer and the original singer of "Ball and Chain," later made famous by Janis Joplin.

Today, someone's helping the world remember Thornton.

"One of the things that stood out to me the most was how homegrown her talent was," said singer and Fisk University graduate Shonka Dukureh. "She approached music the way she felt it. Whatever she was singing, she channeled it."

While part of the theater program at Fisk, Dukureh performed "Hound Dog" as part of a production of "Smokey Joe's Cafe." She had no idea how important the song would be to her one day.

A few years ago, a friend in the music industry encouraged Dukureh to send in some vocals for a film about to go into production.

"Just a few minutes later, she called and said, 'Shonka, they love you!'" she laughed.

Dukureh would later be cast in the film.

"I'm telling you, it was the best email I ever received," she said.

The film was Baz Luhrman's Elvis. The role was Big Mama Thornton. Dukureh hit YouTube to start her research.

"I had not seen her perform live," she said. "I noticed just how confident she was in performing and how in control. I noticed how free she was while she sang — extraordinary. An extraordinary woman."

"I'll tell you pretty quickly, I didn't try to sing it like her because she'd tell ya, 'no one can sing like me, be like me. I sing like no one,'" Dukureh smiled. "I just made sure that I was telling the truth, that I meant every word I say, and that's where it comes from."

An unforgettable moment for Dukureh came with taking her children to see the film.

"When mama came up on that screen, they yelled so loud, they forgot they were in the theater," she laughed.

As wonderful as this has all been for Dukureh, she said it feels like she's bringing someone with her, someone who's been unsung.

"I think that's the beauty of this film is she gets her flowers in a sense, and I'm grateful to be that conduit to help that come about," Dukureh said. "If that means they say her name more than mine, so be it! She deserves that! I'm very grateful to be the person to bring her name back to the forefront. I truly believe that Big Mama Thornton brought me this role."