Big Mama Thornton version
The blues singer Big Mama Thornton's biggest hit was Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "Hound Dog," which she recorded in 1952. Thornton’s "Hound Dog" was the first record Leiber and Stoller produced themselves. They took over the session because their work had sometimes been misrepresented, and on this one they knew how they wanted the drums to sound; Johnny Otis was supposed to produce it, but they wanted him on drums. Otis received a writing credit on all 6 of the 1953 pressings. This 1953 Peacock Records release (#1612) was number one on the Billboard rhythm and blues charts for seven weeks.
Thornton gave this account of how the original was created to Ralph Gleason. “They were just a couple of kids, and they had this song written on the back of a paper bag.” She added a few interjections of her own, played around with the rhythm (some of the choruses have thirteen rather than twelve bars), and had the band bark and howl like hound dogs at the end of the song. In fact, she interacts constantly in a call and response fashion during a one minute long guitar "solo" by Pete Lewis . Her vocals include lines such as: "Aw, listen to that ole hound dog howl.. OOOOoooow", "Now wag your tail", Aw, get it, get it, get it". Thornton's version is a slow, powerful, country blues.
The other musicians on this recording are Devonia Williams (piano), Albert Winston (bass), and Leard Bell (drums), and are listed as "Kansas City Bill & Orchestra."
1953 Country versions
Peacock released Thornton's version in March 1953. Five versions of the song were recorded on several different labels by "country" groups the very next month (April 1953):
- Billy Starr
- Tommy Duncan
- Eddie Hazelwood
- Jack Turner
- Cleve Jackson
Bernie Lowe suspected that "Hound Dog" could potentially have greater appeal, and asked Freddie Bell of Freddie Bell and the Bellboys to rewrite the lyrics to appeal to a broader radio audience. "Snoopin' round my door" was replaced with "cryin' all the time," and "You can wag your tail, but I ain't gonna feed you no more" was replaced by "You ain't never caught a rabbit, and you ain't no friend of mine." This new version of "Hound Dog" was recorded on Lowe's Teen Records in 1955 (TEEN 101 with "Move Me Baby" on the flip side, two of four songs the group did with Lowe that year). The regional popularity of this release, along with the group's showmanship, yielded both a tour, and an engagement in the Las Vegas Sands Hotel's Silver Queen Bar.
Elvis Presley's first, apparently not very successful, appearance in Las Vegas, as an “extra added attraction,” was in the Venus Room of the New Frontier from April 23 through May 6, 1956. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys were the hot act in town, and Elvis went to the Sands to take in their show. Elvis not only enjoyed the show, but also loved their reworking of "Hound Dog" and asked Freddie if he had any objections to him recording his own version. By May 16 Elvis had added “Hound Dog” to his live performances.
Drummer D.J. Fontana put it this way. "We took that from a band we saw in Vegas, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. They were doing the song kinda like that. We went out there every night to watch them. He'd say: 'Let's go watch that band. It's a good band!' That's where he heard 'Hound Dog,' and shortly thereafter he said: 'Let's try that song.'"
Presley first performed "Hound Dog" to a nationwide television audience on The Milton Berle Show on June 5, 1956, his second appearance with Berle. By this time Scotty Moore had added a guitar solo, and DJ Fontana had added a hot drum roll between verses of the song. Presley appeared for the first time on national television sans guitar. Before his death, Berle told an interviewer that he had told Elvis to leave his guitar backstage. "Let 'em see you, son," advised Uncle Miltie.
An upbeat version ended abruptly as Presley threw his arm back. Then began to vamp at half tempo, "You ain't-a nuthin' but a hound dog, cuh-crying all the time." "You ain't never caught a rabbit..." A final wave signaled the band to stop. Elvis pointed threateningly at the audience, and belted out, "You ain't no friend of mine." Presley's movements during the performance were energetic and exaggerated. The reactions of young women in the studio audience were enthusiastic, as shown on the broadcast.
Over 40,000,000 people saw the performance and the next day controversy exploded. Berle's network received many letters of protest. The various self appointed guardians of public morality attacked Elvis in the press. TV critics began a merciless campaign against Elvis making statements that; Elvis "is a no talent performer," he had a "caterwauling voice and nonsense lyrics," he was an "influence on juvenile delinquency," and began using the nickname "Elvis the Pelvis."
Elvis next appeared on national television singing "Hound Dog" on the July 1 Steve Allen Show. Steve Allen wrote: "When I booked Elvis, I naturally had no interest in just presenting him vaudeville-style and letting him do his spot as he might in concert. Instead we worked him into the comedy fabric of our program...We certainly didn't inhibit Elvis' then-notorious pelvic gyrations, but I think the fact that he had on formal evening attire made him, purely on his own, slightly alter his presentation." As Allen was notoriously contemptuous of rock 'n' roll music and songs such as "Hound Dog," he smirkingly presented Elvis "with a roll that looks exactly like a large roll of toilet paper with, says Allen, the 'signatures of eight thousand fans'" and the singer had to wear a tuxedo while singing an abbreviated version of Hound Dog to an actual top hat-wearing basset hound. Elvis and the members of his band were all angry about their treatment that night.
The morning after the Steve Allen Show performance, the studio version was recorded for RCA Victor by Elvis' regular band of Scotty Moore on lead guitar (with Elvis usually providing rhythm guitar), Bill Black on bass, D.J. Fontana on drums and backing vocals from the Jordanaires. Presley recorded this version along with "Don't Be Cruel" and "Any Way You Want Me" on July 2, 1956 at RCA's New York City studio. The producing credit was given to RCA's Steve Sholes, however the studio recordings reveal that Elvis produced the songs (as well as most of the RCA recording sessions) himself, which is verified by the band members. Presley insisted on getting the song exactly the way he wanted it, recording 30 takes of the song before finally settling on take number 28.
"Don't Be Cruel" (G2WW-5936) was the flip side of the "Hound Dog" single (G2WW-5935), released on July 13, 1956. Both sides of the record topped the charts independently, a rare feat. The single also topped all three extant Billboard charts: pop, country & western, and rhythm & blues, the first record in history to do so.
On September 9, with the song topping the US charts, Presley performed an abbreviated version of "Hound Dog" on the Ed Sullivan Show hosted by Charles Laughton. After performing "Ready Teddy," he introduced the song with the following statement, “Friends, as a great philosopher once said...” Elvis's first time on the Sullivan show was an event that drew some 60 million TV viewers. During his second Sullivan Show appearance, October 28, he introduced the song thusly (although unable to keep a straight face). “Ladies and gentlemen, could I have your attention please. Ah, I’d like to tell you we’re going to do a sad song for you. This song here is one of the saddest songs we’ve ever heard. It really tells a story friends. Beautiful lyrics. It goes something like this.” He then launched into a full version of the song. Elvis was shown in full during this performance. Again, Presley drew more than 60 million viewers.
Presley's "Hound Dog" sold over 4 million copies in the United States on its first release. It was his best selling single and starting in July 1956, it spent a record eleven weeks at #1. It stayed in the #1 spot until it was replaced by "Love Me Tender," also recorded by Elvis.
In March 2005, Q Magazine placed Presley's version at number 55 in its list of the Q Magazine's 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #19 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time - the highest ranked of Presley's eleven entries.
Subsequent versions of "Hound Dog"
A partial list of cover versions of "Hound Dog" includes:
* Freddie Bell & his Bell Boys. Re-recorded for Mercury 1956 and released 1957 on the album "Rock 'n' Roll All Flavors"
* John Entwistle (bassist of The Who) - from his 1973 rock 'n 'roll album Rigor Mortis Sets In
* Jimi Hendrix - from BBC Sessions (The Jimi Hendrix Experience album)
* Jimi Hendrix & Little Richard - from the '72 'duet' album Friends From The Beginning.
* The Everly Brothers - from their Rock 'n Soul album.
* Jerry Lee Lewis
* John Lennon - from one of his last charity concerts in New York, 1972.
* Royal Artillery Alanbrooke Band
* Billy "Crash" Craddock - recorded on his album Live! 1977
* Johnny Burnette Trio
* Recorded live by the Rolling Stones in Memphis, Tennessee on June 28, 1978
* Robert Palmer - recorded the original lyric version for his 2003 Blues album Drive
* Tales of Terror (band) - recorded for his EP in 1984
* Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps Live from a Alan Freed radio show in July, 1956.
* Eric Clapton on his album Journeyman
* Bernie Marsden, Ian Paice, Neil Murray and Don Airey during an Ian Paice and Friends concert.
* Jeff Beck & Jed Leiber, an instrumental version appeared on the audio album Honeymoon in Vegas - Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1992)
* James Taylor on his Covers album in 2008.
Single by Big Mama Thornton
Released: March 1953
Format: 78 RPM 10" single
Recorded: August 13, 1952, Los Angeles
Genre: Rhythm and Blues
Label: Peacock Records
Writers: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Producer: Johnny Otis
Single by Elvis Presley
A-side: "Don't Be Cruel"
Released: July 13, 1956
Recorded: July 2, 1956, New York
Genre: Rock and roll
Label: RCA Records
Writers: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Producer: Steve Sholes (Elvis Presley)