SONG: Hound Dog
ARTIST: Elvis Presley
Listen to it here:
Hound Dog was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1952 and originally written for blues singer Big Mama Thornton, who recorded it that same year. It proved to be a big hit for her, spending 14 weeks on the R&B charts. It was so popular that R&B singer Rufus Thomas released a response song called Bear Cat (one of Big Mama Thornton’s nicknames due to her large size and fearsome appearance). There were many many covers of Hound Dog, but Elvis Presley’s 1956 cover eclipses them all. Music scholars believe that Elvis didn’t cover Big Mama Thornton’s version, but parody Freddie Bell and the Bellboys version. Freddie Bell was a popular act in Las Vegas, and Elvis decided to check out their act. As soon as he saw them perform Hound Dog, he was hooked – memorizing the lyrics as fast as he could. Elvis started performing the song in hotels and was generally his closing number. It was meant as comic relief with the burlesque feel and Elvis gyrating his hips. By 1956 Elvis mania had really taken off and Elvis was becoming more and more popular with teenage girls and drawing the ire of teenage boys.
On June 5, 1956 Elvis performed on the Milton Berle show. The song had been reworked into the version we are more accustomed to today with a guitar solo, the drum rolls and the slowing down of the last verse. This is also the first time that Elvis performed without a guitar dancing gyrating his hips and glancing Menacingly at the audience. 40 million people tuned in to watch Elvis and after the show aired controversy exploded. There was much pearl clutching by white middle-class Americans who were threatened by Elvis’ overt sexuality. The Catholic Church released anti-Elvis pamphlets and the Ed Sullivan show vowed to never hire the singer. On July 2, 1956 Elvis recorded Hound Dog with the B-side don’t be cruel at RC studios. Elvis actually never intended to record Hound Dog but his manager saw it as something that could be a concert standard for him. After recording the song 31 times Elvis decided to settle on version number 28 which he felt encapsulated the anger that he was feeling from poor treatment from the Steve Allen show the night before. The song was an absolute smash hit selling over 4 million copies in its first release. Ed Sullivan pretty much had no choice and had to walk back on his prior refusal to have Elvis on the show and actually had Elvis on his show three times. Over 60 million people watched Elvis perform hound dog on the Ed Sullivan show. Many people in the industry were still very critical of the artist Elvis, the song Hound Dog and Elvis’ gyrating hip movements to the song. Frank Sinatra sarcastically called it a masterpiece and other uptight white performers such as Perry Como thought it was vulgar. Despite eventually selling over 10 million copies worldwide Elvis thought it was the silliest song that he ever recorded.
For more on Elvis Presley, check out our review of the album Elvis Presley!
Colonel Tom Parker promised Freddie Bell that if Freddie gave Elvis Hound Dog to perform, Colonel Tom would let Freddie be Elvis’ opening act on tour. He didn’t keep his promise.
Hound Dog spent 11 weeks at number 1 on the charts, a number not surpassed until The End of the Road by Boyz II Men in 1992.
There is a Christian parody cover called Found God.
Is this Elvis’ most famous song? I would say maybe it’s early Elvis’ most famous song. I love the way his voice sounds on this recording and how young and raw it is. Now I wonder if it was because they were on take 28 that it sounds that raw?? Anyway, I also really love the aggressive snare drum sound and how that drum roll is so loud and in your face. And hand claps? Did they hire professional hand clappers to do it, or is it Elvis and some poor tech just sloppily clapping away. Scotty Moore’s guitar work sounds great, and even the tone of his guitar (is it his famous Gibson jumbo?) sounds new and fresh compared to a lot of the songs we’ve listened to here. I also didn’t really notice the Jordanaires aah-ing in the background and I think if they weren’t there the song wouldn’t have been the same. I can totally see why this song was so famous or infamous, depending on which side of the “moral purity” fence you stand. I can imagine it being the sort of anger and energy that young people were thirsting for, something edgy, fun, looser, whereas the people who were the ideal of “making America great again” were scandalized by salacious fun, overt sexuality and *gasp* dancing. How dare Elvis rock the suburbs! I think I would be pretty happy if some nerd like Perry Como thought my music was vulgar. Anyway, this song is great, the band sounds great, and this is peak Elvis.
It’s amazing how many times you can hear a song and not realize some very basic things about it. For me, listening critically to Hound Dog, it was the hand claps. What? There are hand claps in this song? It kind of made me think about the whole idea of adding hand claps and when those start to get phased out. It’s definitely a 1950s phenomenon. I don’t hate it, though. To my ears it adds an element of innocence and playfulness to a song that is otherwise much more energized and aggressive. I also realized that Elvis’ first two hits both start with his voice alone with the band joining in on the second measure. Anyway, to the actual review. I mean, you can hear how this song would have turned some heads. The drums sound better, but drum quality or mic placement or both are still kind of under construction at this point. The bass is actually very audible in this recording, and the guitar gets a solo! I like this type of guitar, deep and driving and kind of rockabilly. And of course, this is Elvis in his prime. There are lots of eras of Elvis that I’m not a fan of, but this is where you can really hear why he was so adored. His voice is flexible, energetic, and clear sounding. The song itself is simple, so simple that it’s not even really verse, chorus, verse chorus, but melody, melody, melody, guitar solo, melody. Still, it’s a fun song to listen to 65 years later still!
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
The OG (ignore that they have a photo of Josephine Baker and NOT Big Mama Thornton).
John Lennon live in NYC:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:
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