Shonka Dukureh, a blues singer who played music legend Big Mama Thornton in the film Elvis, was found dead in her apartment on Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee. She was 44.
The Metro Nashville Police Department said one of Dukureh’s two young children found her unresponsive on July 21, and went to a neighbor’s apartment for help. Investigators said there were no signs of foul play. An autopsy will be performed to determine her cause of death.
Dukureh graduated from Fisk University with a degree in theater arts, according to The Tennessean. She also earned a master’s degree in education from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville.
She landed her first movie role in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, as Big Mama Thornton and performed her 1952 hit “Hound Dog” in the film. The blockbuster was released in June.
Elvis Presley recorded “Hound Dog” four years after Thornton. For decades it was rumored that Presley stole the song, but original songwriter Mike Stoller told the “Rolling Stone Music Now” podcast in June that the single was not stolen, although he admitted he, co-writer Jerry Leiber and Thornton were never fairly compensated for the track.
Dukureh told The Tennessean she was honored to portray Thornton in Elvis.
“I was very aware and wanting to really be intentional about making sure I was paying respect, respecting her, respecting her legacy, respecting her spirit, respecting everything about what she brought to music and understanding that I’m able to do it because she’s done it and laid that foundation,” she said.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper paid tribute to Dukureh on Twitter after her death.
“My deepest condolences to the family of Shonka Dukureh. Shonka graduated from @Fisk1866 and called Nashville home for many years,” Cooper tweeted.
Luhrmann and Doja Cat also remembered Dukureh on social media.
“All of the Elvis movie family are heartbroken by the loss of Shonka Dukureh,” Luhrmann wrote on Instagram. “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.”
Doja Cat’s song “Vegas” on the Elvis soundtrack featured Dukureh.
“Rest in Peace Shonka… An incredible talent taken from us too soon. 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 my deepest condolences to her loved ones,” Doja Cat shared in an Instagram Story.