“Hound Dog” (Song)

For the most part we can say that the origin of the modern American music industry dates back to the mid-20th century. And “Hound Dog” is one those songs which defined that era, having been recorded by a number of it most-popular artists. In fact Elvis Presley is recognized as the premiere American musician from the 1950s and 1960s, and his rendition of “Hound Dog” is in fact his signature track.

As pointed out in this article’s facts section, there are actually multiple different versions of this song. The first was by a singer named Big Mama Thornton. Lyrically the chorus of her rendition is laced with sexual innuendos. Indeed the titular “hound dog” is actually an unflattering appellation she is ascribing onto the addressee, that being her unfaithful lover. It is similar to how even in more-modern times women may refer to a promiscuous man as a dog. Well even as far back as the 1950s, such a slang term was in use in the African-American community.

Song’s Narrative

And basically, what is transpiring is that Big Mama is kicking the addressee out of her house. And keeping within the titular theme of the song, she uses canine-related metaphors in the chorus to detail how he is responding. For instance, he is “snooping around her door”, meaning that he is still trying to get into her home (or perhaps more specifically her pants). And in doing so he is ‘wagging his tail’, which has been interpreted as trying to convince the singer to let him have sex with her. But she is not ‘going to feed him no more’, meaning that she is not going to give in to his pleading. Or on a more-amorous level, said statement indicates that she will not let him sleep with her.

Meanwhile the verses delineate the singer’s gripes with the addressee. For instance, he presented himself as being a “high-class” person. However, she is able to perceive that in reality he is not. And it is also revealed that he has caused her a considerable degree of emotional anguish. Ultimately, what her sentiments boil down to is concluding that he was never really for her in the first place. Rather he was just looking to use her in order to acquire “a home”.

Elvis Presley’s Version

But Elvis’ cover is more sanitized, with the sensual references of Big Mama’s original being intentionally omitted. In fact Elvis’s cover was conceived to be literally about a hound dog, i.e. a hunting companion to the singer. In other words, he is complaining about his pet, not his lover. And what he is saying is that said dog complains a lot (i.e. “crying all the time”) and on top of that has “never caught a rabbit”. Also he puts forth that the dog presented himself as being “high classed”. Of course this is meant to be a metaphorical statement, likely pointing to the idea that the singer was under the impression that the hound was a more-proficient hunter than he actually proved to be.

But that being established it has also been theorized that, at least when he recorded the song, Presley may have been singing about a particular individual. So if interpreted in such a manner, this is actually a diss song by Elvis, which would have been aimed at a talk show host by the name of Steve Allen.

Who wrote “Hound Dog”?

This song was written by a couple of artists who themselves greatly influenced the American music scene – Michael Stoller and Jerry Leiber (1933-2011).

Hound Dog itself went on to be covered by a plethora of musician. Here we will take a lot at some of the more-prominent renditions.

Big Mama Thornton records “Hound Dog”

Stoller and Leiber wrote this track specifically for an R&B singer by the name of Big Mama Thornton (1926-1984). In fact the lyrics themselves were based on the way they perceived her appearance and personality. Moreover they were able to scribe the song, according to Leiber, “in about 12 minutes”. Additionally, both Leiber and Stoller were 19 years old at the time.

Mama Thornton recorded the song in late-1952, and it came out in early-1953. Some music historians credit it as being one of the most-important R&B songs in history, as in being one of the progenitors of rock and roll itself.

Jerry Leiber and Michael Stoller also produced Big Mama’s version. In fact it was the first song they had ever produced.

Thornton’s “Hound Dog” went on to be a big hit. It topped Billboard’s R&B chart, and Cash Box magazine (which was basically just as popular as Billboard back in those days) dubbed it 1953’s best R&B song.

Commercial Performance

According to some estimates it has sold 750,000 copies and in the very least 500,000. And it would have sold even better than that. But this was back in the days when it was not as easy to control copyright infringement. In other words, a number of covers to “Hound Dog” by other artists as well as answer songs were in circulation concurrently with the original and affected its sales figures accordingly.

Meanwhile Michal Stoller proclaimed that the track “sold a million copies”, and Big Mama said the “song sold over two million records”. But both of them, writers and performer alike, got gypped by Peacock Records, the label that put the song out. In fact according to Thornton, she only received $500 compensation for this historical hit.  However, it did remain her signature song throughout the years. In fact in 2013 her rendition made it into the Grammy Hall of Fame, though sadly she was not alive to witness that day.

Comparably, Big Mama’s original version was inducted into the National Recording Registry in 2016. Furthermore, it has also formally been recognized as one of the “500 Songs” responsible for shaping Rock and Roll music.

Other Versions

As aforementioned, shortly after this song came out a bunch of artists began covering it.  Many of them were actually White and belonging to the country genre.

Also concerning the answer songs, the most-popular amongst them was one called “Bear Cat”, written by a White producer named Sam Phillips (1923-2003) and performed by an African-American musician named Rufus Thomas (1971-2001). “Bear Cat” also came out in 1953, just two weeks after “Hound Dog” itself. In fact Billboard described it as “the fastest answer song” to ever come out. And Don Robey (1930-1975), who was in charge of Peacock Records, hated such answer songs not only because he felt they were of an inferior quality but also due to the fact that they negatively affected his record sales.  Indeed at one point he even went on to successfully sue the creators of “Bear Cat”.

And even outside of covering or parodying the song, some musicians sought about copying (i.e. plagiarizing) it outright, without giving any acknowledgment to the original creators.

Freddie Bell’s Version

The first truly significant cover of “Hound Dog” came with the rendition released by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys in 1955. Although it did benefit from the success of the original as well as a later (Elvis Presley) version, it wasn’t really that big of a hit. Rather the reason it is significant is because, despite still being credited to Michael Stoller and Jerry Leiber, the lyrics were in fact altered. 

In the original song, the titular hound dog was actually a slang term for the singer’s unfaithful male partner. But Freddie Bell’s version intentionally took out the sexual innuendos which marked Big Mama’s original. And instead his lyrics, which were intended to be humorous, were literally centered on a hound dog. But what really made this version important is that it was the band’s same lyrics and style in rendering the song which Elvis used on his cover version, which came out in 1956. 

In fact it can be said, to a large degree, that he flat-out copied Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys. In fact Freddie Bell (1931-2008) later complained that he made an agreement with Elvis’s management to allow them to use the song in return for certain favors, only to have them not hold on their end of the agreement.

And to add insult to injury no one, including Freddie Bell or Elvis Presley (1935-1977), thought that the revised “Hound Dog” would blow up like it did. Or stated otherwise, Bell never bothered to be credited as the song’s co-writers, despite his lyrical contributions.  Ultimately this oversight cost him millions of dollars in royalties.

However Elvis did add his own unique stylings to the song also, as well as some which were derived from Big Mama Thornton’s original.

Elvis Presley’s Version of “Hound Dog”

As significant as “Hound Dog” proved to Elvis’s career, his rendition was not without its controversies. For instance, he performed it on a widely-viewed episode of The Milton Berle Show in June of 1956. His performance was meant to be sort of a comedy, i.e. a White artist attempting to perform sexualized Black music. But instead some critics, including the Catholic Church itself, took it in all seriousness. And basically their gripe came down to perceiving Presley’s trademark gyrations as being too sexual, i.e. a threat to the moral fabric of mid-20th century America. 

This resulted in formal protests, Presley being shunned by other entertainers (i.e. variety show host Ed Sullivan) and the singer being dubbed “Elvis the Pelvis”. However it can be said that many of these reactions were what we in the early 21st century would refer to as hatin’ because Elvis was, even during that earlier in his career, well loved by the ladies.

Elvis officially releases “Hound Dog”

Elvis Presley went on to record Hound Dog on 2 July 1956 in New York City at RCA’s studio. And it was officially released about a week later, on 13 July 1956.

On the same day he recorded it, Elvis also laid down another of his classic, “Don’t Be Cruel”. The reason he had not recorded “Hound Dog” earlier, despite already performing it a few times live and on national TV, is because he never intended to actually release it.  However, the artist who officially produced his version, Stephen Sholes, convinced him to do so on behalf of RCA Records. However, it should be noted that others who were at the recording session rather argue that Presley produced the track himself. In other words, it was his idea to present it in a fast, up-tempo style as opposed to the slower version he often rendered live.

Elvis disses Steve Allen on “Hound Dog”?

According to some accounts, the reason he was so fired up is because the day before the recording, he performed “Hound Dog” on The Steve Allen Show (dated 1 July 1956). And basically the host of the program, Steve Allen (1921-2000), made fun of Elvis on national TV.  So it is said that this frustration carried over into the way he recorded the tune (including recording 31 different takes). And as such, during certain junctures it is argued that when Presley is dissing the “hound dog”, he is actually referring to Steve Allen.

“You ain’t nothing but a hound dog
Crying all the time”

A Big Hit for Elvis

Well in dissing Elvis, Allen may have done him a favor instead, as “Hound Dog” proved to be a monumental hit. For instance it topped 8 different Billboard charts, including the Hot 100 itself. Moreover it scored a number one on Cash Box’s Top Country & Western Singles listing. And it also peaked at number two on the UK Singles Chart, in addition to charting in Belgium and Australia.

In terms of the Hot 100, it set a record for most weeks, 11, at number 1. This record was not broken until Boyz II Men did so with their 1992 track “End of the Road“.

Moreover Elvis’ version went on to be certified quadruple-Platinum in the United States.

Ultimately, in 1988, Elvis’s version was itself enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame (even before Big Mama Thornton’s). And in Rolling Stone’s 2011 ranking of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, it placed as high as number 11 on the list.

Elvis makes appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show

After the song had blown up, Ed Sullivan, who was at first hatin’ on Elvis, was compelled to invite him on the show. More specifically his rival, Steve Allen, had benefited greatly from featuring Presley, and Sullivan had to counter. So he went on to contract the singer to appear on three different episodes, and on all occasions Elvis performed “Hound Dog”.  The first time he had done so was on the date of 9 September 1956. And that particular show, even up until 2020, remains the highest-rated TV program in US history in terms of the percentage of the overall television audience, 82.6%, having watched it.

Covers

Elvis’s version in particular is also known to have been covered by a plethora of legendary 20th century musicians including the following:

  • Sammy Davis Jr. (1963)
  • Little Richard (1964)
  • Jimi Hendrix (1967)
  • Van Morrison (1971)
  • Eric Clapton (1989)

John Lennon also paid tribute to Elvis Presley by covering Elvi’s iconic version of this classic. 

FYI: This classic is known to have been a favorite of the Beatles during their formative years and a song they played frequently.

Legal Issues

The success of “Hound Dog” resulted in a number of court cases. And the most prominent ones centered on either preventing unauthorized use of the song or issues concerning its ownership.

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