Shonka Dukureh, Big Mama Thornton Actress in ‘Elvis’ Movie, Dead at 44

by Sean Griffin

Shonka Dukureh, the actress who played Big Mama Thornton in this year’s Elvis biopic, was found dead Thursday in her apartment. No foul play is currently suspected in her death. She was 44 and had two young children.

Dukureh was reportedly found by one of her kids unresponsive. The child ran to a neighbor’s apartment, and the neighbor then called 911 at 9:27 a.m.

Fans took to Twitter to react to the news. “She was so excited about being in the movie as were her children,” one account wrote. “Thoughts with the family.”

Big Mama Thornton was an R&B singer famous for recording “Hound Dog” before Elvis Presley. Her version came out three years before the song became an eleven-week No. 1 hit for The King. Thornton also helped write and was the original singer of “Ball and Chain,” a song Janis Joplin later recorded.

Shonka Dukureh’s Big Break

Dukureh was encouraged to try out for the role in Elvis by a friend in the music industry. After sending in vocals and eventually nabbing the part, Dukureh would go on to reflect on Thorton’s impact as a writer and performer.

“I had not seen her perform live,” Shonka Dukureh said. She continued, writing, “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.”

“One of the things that stood out to me the most was how homegrown her talent was,” she added. “She approached music the way she felt it. Whatever she was singing, she channeled it.”

Ironically enough, while part of the theater program at Fisk University, Dukureh performed “Hound Dog” as part of a production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe. She never knew she’d also record the song in a blockbuster movie about Elvis Presley for its soundtrack.

After receiving the part, she later went on to say, “I’m telling you, it was the best email I ever received.”

Dukureh had recently spoke with Shadow and Act about her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “It’s been amazing and I’m looking forward to doing it all over again,” she said. “It’s just been a dream. I didn’t even know it was a dream [of mine] until I really got there and experienced everything, but it has really been a chance of a lifetime, this life-altering experience.”

“You know what, it’s all amazing because I know I realize that there were a lot of people who could have played the role,” she said. “And so I just knew how privileged I was to get the opportunity. And I just wanted to want it to pay the right respect to Big Mama Thornton and to do her justice in the film.”

This is a developing story.