Shonka Dukureh, who made her Hollywood debut last month as the soulful blues legend Big Mama Thornton in “Elvis,” died on Thursday in Nashville. 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 her two young children found her unresponsive in her bedroom and ran to alert a neighbor, who called 911 at 9:27 a.m., the police said.
“Elvis,” the biopic of Elvis Presley that starred Austin Butler and Tom Hanks, was Ms. Dukureh’s first major acting role. In playing Big Mama Thornton, the singer and songwriter who recorded “Hound Dog” in 1952, a year before Elvis Presley did, Ms. Dukureh found a role that melded her booming voice with her apparently emerging acting chops.
Her cover of “Hound Dog” especially captivated audiences. She also intended to release a studio album, titled “The Lady Sings the Blues,” according to her website.
Ms. Dukureh, who was from Nashville “by way of Charlotte, N.C.,” originally planned to become a teacher and held a master’s degree in education from Trevecca Nazarene University, according to her website. She instead pursued the arts, using her powerful voice while touring internationally with Jamie Liddell and the Royal Pharaohs and performing a variety of other featured and background vocals.
Ms. Dukureh also held a bachelor’s degree in theater from Fisk University, according to her website.
Her performance in “Elvis” rapidly earned her fans, including from her fellow castmates. Olivia DeJonge, who played Priscilla Presley in the film, told Entertainment Weekly that watching Ms. 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,” Ms. DeJonge said.