In the sultry summer of 1952, two skinny Jewish teenagers from New York made rock and roll history. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had only just begun to cut their teeth on the R&B writing circuit when King Record’s Johnny Otis invited them to his Los Angeles home. There he presented the boys with a tall order, the magnitude of which they were faced with the moment they entered Otis’s studio garage: Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, a towering woman of unapologetically bawdy grit, brought in all the way from Birmingham, Alabama, to grind out the blues, needed a song. Composing a tune that would highlight Thornton’s aggressive sensuality while still maintaining at least a façade of decency was no easy task, yet, in less than twelve minutes, armed with an ink pen, the back of a paper bag, and the audacity to tell a 350-pound black woman how to sing the blues, the duo managed to write a song that would change the face of music forever: “Hound Dog” was born.
“Hound Dog” is a song indelibly tied to the infamous gyrations of Elvis Presley, though Big Mama’s version – differing in both style and content from Presley’s rendition – predates it by almost four years. When paired with the gritty rub of Thornton’s voice, the song’s lyrics, thick with thinly-veiled double-entendres and punctuated with growls, yips, and cheeky threats, are blush-inducing to even the hardiest of listeners. Unlike later versions of the song, there is little confusion as to the object of Thornton’s saucy invectives; she is not berating a poor hunting dog, but a rakish lover who has returned: “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog / Been snoopin’ round my door / You can wag your tail / But I ain’t gonna feed you no more.” The track was a rousing success, climbing to the top of R&B charts, generating over $500,000 and inspiring countless answers and parodies, including Rufus Thomas’s chart-topping riposte, “Bearcat,” a song which implicates a feline Thornton, not her innocent suitor, as the one with lascivious inclinations.
It was not long before the growing celebrity of “Hound Dog” caught the interest of Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, a six-piece, horn-heavy, rock and roll band. In 1956, Bell excised the overtly sexual references of Thornton’s song in exchange for something more palatable to mainstream audiences. The slow, bluesy twang of guitar was replaced with fast-paced brass, and the eyebrow-raising lyrics were sterilized into their now familiar format: “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog / cryin’ all the time / you ain’t never caught a rabbit / and you ain’t no friend of mine.” The song, complete with choreographed burlesque dance moves, became a regular feature in the band’s Las Vegas routine, drawing in crowds of appreciative listeners, among them, a young, pouty-lipped aspiring artist by the name of Elvis Presley.
While visiting Sin City during a relatively unsuccessful string of performances, Presley found himself drawn repeatedly to the Bellboys’ shows. He soon approached Bell, who, flattered by the young musician’s interest and hoping to increase his own exposure, consented to Presley’s request to cover the song. The rest, one might say, is history.
Originally intended to provide a comedic conclusion to Presley’s live shows, “Hound Dog” was a hit with audiences, and soon made its television debut on the Milton Berle Show, where Elvis scandalized an audience of 40,000 and earned the sobriquet that would remain his enduring claim to fame: Elvis the Pelvis. Some attempted to dampen the flagrant suggestiveness of Presley’s song and gyrations (Steve Allen, for instance, prevented any explicit antics on his show by forcing the twenty-one-year-old rabble rouser to don a tux and tails while serenading an unimpressed, bespectacled, basset hound), yet the song’s popularity exploded, topping the charts in Pop, R&B, and Country and becoming the best-selling single of Presley’s career.
The path of “Hound Dog” is a circuitous one. The song has inspired covers by over eighty-five artists including John Lennon, Little Richard, and Jimi Hendrix, prompted parodies ranging from Yiddish pop-dedications (“You’re a Doity Dog”) to Chicano odes to Chihuahuas, and has been translated into several languages, including Spanish (El Twist de Perro, “The Dog Twist”) and French (Un Vieux Chien de Chase, “An Old Hunting Dog”). Big Mama Thornton and the King’s renditions of the song have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and both rank in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “Top 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.” From the dusty corners of Johnny Otis’s garage to the blinding brilliance of Ed Sullivan’s stage, “Hound Dog,” in all of its incarnations, stands testament to both the mutability and permanence of a well-written song.