NASHVILLE (NYTIMES) - Shonka Dukureh, who made her Hollywood debut as celebrated blues singer Big Mama Thornton in the new Baz Luhrmann film Elvis was found dead Thursday (July 21) in Nashville, Tennessee. She was 44.
The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department confirmed the death but did not provide a cause, saying only that no foul play was evident.
One of Dukureh's two young children found her unresponsive in her bedroom Thursday morning and ran to alert a neighbour, who called 911, police said.
Elvis, Luhrmann's highly anticipated movie about the life of Elvis Presley, with Austin Butler in the title role and Tom Hanks as Presley's manager, Tom Parker, opened in June.
Big Mama Thornton, who recorded the original version of Hound Dog in 1952, a year before Presley had a hit with it, was Dukureh's first major acting role.
In Thornton, she found a role that melded her booming voice with her apparently emerging acting chops. Her rendition of Hound Dog especially captivated audiences.
She had been planning to release a studio album, titled The Lady Sings The Blues, according to her website.
Dukureh said she was from Nashville "by way of Charlotte, N.C.", where she was born Sept 3, 1977. She originally planned to become a teacher and held a master's degree in education from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, according to her website.
She instead pursued the arts. Her powerful voice was heard on international tours with Jamie Lidell and the Royal Pharaohs, and she was a featured vocalist on several albums.
Her performance in Elvis rapidly earned her fans, among them her fellow cast members.
Olivia DeJonge, who played Priscilla Presley in the film, told Entertainment Weekly that watching Dukureh "was a spiritual experience".
"To watch a star essentially be born, to have something in her sort of break free, was just - it was insane to watch," DeJonge said.
Information on survivors was not immediately available.