Shonka Dukureh, the Nashville blues singer who made her film debut playing Big Mama Thornton in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis, died on Thursday. She was 44.
Dukureh was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 3, 1977. She earned a Bachelors degree in Theatre and later a Masters degree in Education from Trevecca Nazarene University, with intentions to become a teacher. But instead, she followed her passion into the arts.
Luhrmann discovered Dukureh while searching for vocalists to feature in his Elvis Presley biopic. "Her performance was so great she seemed the perfect person to play the all-important role of 'Big Mama' Thornton," he previously said. Willie Mae Thornton was the first to record "Hound Dog" in 1952, a year before Presley made it a hit. (Austin Butler stars as Elvis in the film.)
Dukureh's recording of "Hound Dog" appears on the movie's official soundtrack, with her vocals also featured on Doja Cat's track, "Vegas." (Dukureh makes an appearance in the music video for the latter.)
The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department confirmed the death and concluded that "no foul play is evident." Dukureh was found dead in her apartment. She is survived by her two young children.
Luhrmann took to social media to pay tribute to the singer and actress, writing that, "A special light went out today and all of the Elvis movie family are heartbroken by the loss," alongside a series of behind-the-scenes photos of Dukureh.
"From the moment she came into our world, Shonka brought joy, spirit and of course her voice and her music. Whenever she was on set, on stage or even just in the room, everyone always felt uplifted," the director writes. "Shonka was just starting to find a larger audience for her tremendous talent, and I got to see her uplift whole crowds of people at Coachella and beyond. A favorite word of Shonka's, in daily use, was 'blessings,' and I, along with the entire Elvis cast, crew and musical collaborators, feel truly blessed to have had time with her. We send all our love and support to Shonka's children and family at this time."
Doja Cat likewise paid her respects, sharing a photo with Dukureh and Luhrmann backstage at the 2022 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where Dukureh joined her onstage for the first live performance of "Vegas."
"An incredible talent taken from us too soon," Doja Cat captioned the photo. "Was a true honor getting to know her and I am so grateful to her for lending her incredible vocals to 'Vegas.' Her amazing performance in Elvis amongst her other artistry will live on. Sending me deepest condolences to her loved ones."
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