Hound Dog: Big Mama Thornton, Freddie Bell and Elvis Presley

Hello there. This edition of Tim’s Cover Story looks at Hound Dog, one of the most influential songs in the early days of rock, covered by one of rock music’s greatest performers and innovators. The song not only thrust Elvis Presley into the public eye but its lyrics, message and delivery proved nearly irresistible for others to imitate, ‘answer’ or parody.  According to Wikipedia there are more than 250 covers of Hound Dog.

Big Mama Thornton’s original version of Hound Dog:

Hound Dog was created by the great song-writing duo of lyricist Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller, who are shown in a photo below.  Leiber and Stoller wrote several of the first cross-over tunes that were initially recorded by black artists and subsequently became pop hits.  Hound Dog was their most famous cross-over from a Delta blues version to rock ‘n roll, while another notable Leiber-Stoller cross-over was Kansas City which became a pop hit for Wilbert Harrison.  Leiber and Stoller later became the main songwriters for The Coasters, for whom they wrote a string of hits (24 in all).  They also produced several songs for The Drifters, produced Ben E. King when he went solo after leaving The Drifters, and they were subsequently producers for a number of girl groups.  The 1995 Broadway musical revue Smokey Joe’s Café reprises a number of Leiber & Stoller tunes.

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Leiber and Stoller were real rock-music pioneers.  Their songs were often characterized by the inclusion of teen-age slang terms, as will be familiar to anyone who remembers Coasters songs such as Yakety Yak or Charlie Brown.  They also included lush strings on several Drifters records; this made a big impression on young session musician Phil Spector, whose subsequent “wall of sound” technique was strongly influenced by the earlier Leiber-Stoller productions.

Influential West-coast bandleader Johnny Otis introduced Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton to Leiber and Stoller in August, 1952 and asked them to write a song for Big Mama, whose first two recordings had not produced a successful single.  Leiber and Stoller were taken with the imposing black woman, who weighed in the vicinity of 300-350 pounds and is shown in the photo below.  They decided they would write a “brusque and badass” song for the blues singer.  According to Leiber and Stoller, they wrote the 12-bar Delta blues song in roughly 15 minutes.  A major hurdle was to find lyrics that were sassy and suggestive, but at the same time were fit to print.  In the Wikipedia entry for this song , Leiber described the song’s opening line.

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog”, was a euphemism, said Leiber. The song, a Southern blues lament, is “the tale of a woman throwing a gigolo out of her house and her life”

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When they entered the recording studio, Leiber and Stoller were taken aback by Ms. Thornton’s initial impulse to croon the song much like Frank Sinatra.  They explained that they envisioned a much grittier vocal style — it took some chutzpah for two white boys to lecture Big Mama Thornton on the proper method for singing the blues!  Once Leiber demonstrated what they were looking for, Big Mama took over and produced the final version in just two takes.

Here is a live performance of Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton.  It was filmed in 1965, some twelve years after the original record was released, but it affords a rare opportunity to see this singer in live performance.  It also includes some tasty guitar licks, I believe by Buddy Guy.

And below is the Peacock Records single for Hound Dog.  The musicians were from the Johnny Otis band (Otis himself plays drums), however the group is listed under the pseudonym “Kansas City Bill” because Otis was then under license to Mercury Records.  In addition to growling the tune, Big Mama includes a number of interjections during the guitar solo by Pete Lewis (“aw, listen to that ol hound dog… aw, play it boy, you make me feel good… now wag your tail”).  At the very end Big Mama begins howling together with the band members.

The original song was quite a hit, making it to #3 on the Billboard rhythm and blues charts for 1953.  Billboard advertised it as a “wild and exciting rhumba blues” (?), and it’s estimated that it sold roughly a half million records.  So someone presumably made a bundle of money from the original Hound Dog recording.  But it was not Leiber and Stoller, who claim to have received only an advance check for $1,200 that bounced; nor was it Big Mama Thornton who stated that she was paid $500 for the record.

Hound Dog inspired several groups to record their own version, or men to write `answers’ to the song (‘Bear Cat’, ‘You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Female’, ‘Real Gone Hound Dog’, ….) or parodies.  Clearly, both the song and its message had struck a nerve.  Attorneys also had a field day with suits claiming infringement of copyright by the answer or parody songs. Eventually the issue was settled, with court rulings establishing the precedent that if you simply take someone else’s song and replace the lyrics with your own, you have to pay royalties to the original copyright owner.  The court rejected the defendants’ argument that “all 12-bar blues songs were basically the same.”

Angered by getting stiffed over the royalties from Hound Dog, Leiber and Stoller formed their own company Spark Records in 1953.  As reported by Wikipedia,

The label was later bought by Atlantic Records, which hired Leiber and Stoller in an innovative deal that allowed them to produce for other labels. This, in effect, made them the first independent record producers.

As for Big Mama Thornton, she continued for several years to have a reasonable career in blues and later gospel music.  In addition to Hound Dog, she wrote Ball and Chain which later became a hit for Janis Joplin.  She was a regular staple on traveling blues shows and festivals, and in 1984 she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.  Later in her career Big Mama suffered several health issues, aggravated by a combination of her weight and her heavy drinking.  She was also seriously injured in an auto accident in the 70s.  In 1984 her heart and liver condition became critical.  During this period her weight dropped from 350 to 95 pounds, and she died in July 1984.

Elvis Presley’s Cover of Hound Dog:

The cover of Elvis Presley's 1956 debut album for RCA Records

The cover of Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut album for RCA Records

Elvis Presley first surfaced in Memphis in 1954 when Sam Phillips recorded him in the Sun Records studios. Elvis’ rockabilly cover of Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right, Mama became a big hit locally from the moment that Memphis radio DJs began featuring it. Phillips was convinced that he could make a lot of money if he could find a white artist capable of producing cross-over versions of rhythm and blues songs by black artists.  Elvis became Sam Phillips’ greatest find, although during the same period Phillips also produced records by Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison.  In an ironic twist of fate, Sam Phillips was forced to sell Elvis’ recording contract to RCA Records; Phillips was strapped for cash because Sun Records was sued after releasing Rufus Thomas’ Bear Cat, which had been written as an ‘answer’ to Hound Dog but had copied the original song without attribution.

Freddie Bell and the Bellboys

Freddie Bell and the Bellboys

Elvis did not rely on Big Mama Thornton’s rendition of Hound Dog.  Rather, he started from a version by a group called Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, shown here with Freddie holding the trombone.  Elvis had seen them perform the song in their Las Vegas lounge act. Ironically, Freddie Bell was one of the hottest acts in Vegas at the time Elvis was unsuccessfully attempting to break into the Las Vegas scene.  Elvis’ first appearance there was cut back to one week because of “audience dissatisfaction, low attendance, and unsavory behavior by underage fans” – how times change!

Here is the Freddie Bell version of Hound Dog.  Note that in his version Freddie Bell introduces the line
You ain’t never caught a rabbit, you ain’t no friend of mine
that did not exist in the original.

Elvis was so taken by Freddie Bell’s adaptation of Hound Dog that he fleshed out a rock and roll version with his band mates guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana.  Moore came up with rockabilly guitar solos while Fontana introduced rapid-fire drum licks at the end of each verse. While the Freddie Bell song was basically a `swing’ parody of Hound Dog, Elvis and his mates turned it into a genuine rock ‘n roll song.

Elvis and his band began closing their live shows with Hound Dog.  Freddie Bell would typically bounce and swing around on stage in his over-the-top parody of the song.  Consequently Elvis began shaking and gyrating during his shows.  But while Bell’s performance came across as amusing and campy, Elvis’ version was highly sexual.  Elvis and Hound Dog became pop sensations following live performances in 1956 on the Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan shows.  Here is Elvis’ June 1956 live performance on Milton Berle, which was watched by 40 million people.  In the first minute Elvis gives his rock version of the song; however the last minute features an exaggerated bump-and-grind that propelled him to fame and notoriety.

And here is a short clip of Elvis in October 1956 performing Hound Dog on the Ed Sullivan show.  Note that this contradicts the widely held myth that Ed Sullivan showed Elvis only from the waist up.

The day after his performance on the Steve Allen show, Elvis and his band recorded Hound Dog for RCA.  Elvis’ high-energy vocals, backed by Moore’s guitar licks and Fontana’s drumming, made the song a rock classic.  Although the production credits are listed for Steve Sholes, Elvis’ bandmates report that he was personally responsible for producing this song.

Here is the audio of the single Hound Dog.


Some Comments on the Reactions to Hound Dog:

As a 13-year-old teenager, I found the response to Hound Dog a revelation.  As I watched the girls in my middle-school class shrieking and wetting themselves while watching Elvis perform, I realized that something powerful was happening before my very eyes.  The sexual message could not have been more dramatic.  The combination of Elvis’ recording of Hound Dog with his live televised appearances on the most popular national TV shows made Elvis the very personification of rock ‘n roll.

Thus, conservatives tended to focus their concerns about rock ‘n roll on Elvis and his performances.  Congressman Emmanuel Celler expressed his disgust over
the bad taste that is exemplified by Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog’ music, with his animal gyrations, which are certainly most distasteful to me, are violative of all that I know to be in good taste.

Perry Como chimed in that
When I hear ‘Hound Dog’ I have to vomit a little

And Frank Sinatra described rock and roll in general as
the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear—naturally I refer to the bulk of rock ‘n’ roll. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd—in plain fact dirty—lyrics.

Whoa, Frank, `cretinous goons’ – chill out!  Sinatra should have known better since he initially burst on the musical scene as a “bobby-soxer” teen-age rebel.

Of course, this vicious public condemnation made rock ‘n roll in general, and Elvis in particular, more popular than ever with the younger generation. Sun Records producer Sam Phillips has been quoted as saying,
Without the cooperation of total resentment on the part of the parents, rock ‘n roll would have had a rougher time makin’ it.

The net result was that Elvis and Hound Dog became identified by teenagers with the thrill of rock, and by their parents with the threat posed by rock music. Worldwide, Hound Dog sold ten million records, more than any other Elvis song, and Presley was on his way to becoming “The King” of rock.

Returning from a European cruise with his wife, Stoller was told by Leiber that Hound Dog was a monster hit for Elvis Presley, whereupon Stoller replied “Elvis who?”   However, Leiber and Stoller subsequently went on to write songs like Loving You, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole for The King.

In the early days of rock and roll, covers tended to be made by white artists who often took advantage of music created by black artists.  For many critics, Hound Dog is Exhibit A as an example of white artists (e.g., Elvis Presley) co-opting songs from black musicians (Big Mama Thornton).  However, Glenn Gass reminded me that the history of this particular song is much more nuanced.  Hound Dog was created by the white Jewish songwriters Leiber and Stoller, who coached Big Mama on how to perform the song.  The band-leader for the recording session, Johnny Otis, was a Greek-American who was (incorrectly) considered a Negro because he lived and worked in the black community.  So our notion that Hound Dog was created by artists of color and then copied by white musicians is somewhat naive.   As is often the case, the truth is both more subtle and more interesting than facile generalizations.

Final Remarks about Elvis Presley:

We will discuss Elvis’ songs and his career at considerable length in later posts. Suffice it to say that with his overwhelming fame and popularity, he desperately needed someone to look after his best interests, and he was let down by nearly everyone. He had a savvy agent, Tom Parker, who signed Elvis to contracts that were exceptionally favorable to Parker himself.  Although Elvis made 31 films and several of those were box-office hits, the films were often of exceptionally poor quality.

Andrew Caine described Presley’s movies as a “pantheon of bad taste”. Kirchberg and Hendrickx noted that the scripts “were all the same”. Jerry Hopkins noted that the songs seemed to be “written on order by men who never really understood Elvis or rock and roll,” and that for [the movie] Blue Hawaii “fourteen songs were cut in just three days.”

Elvis remained close to a number of old friends who benefited from his famous generosity; and his doctors prescribed for him a staggering array of powerful pharmaceuticals.  Although his magical voice never deserted him, the dashing young king of rock ‘n roll slowly but surely morphed into the shockingly overweight and over-medicated figure who died at age 42. What a shame. Elvis would have been 80 in January 2015, but his music lives on.

Source Material:
Wikipedia, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Wikipedia, Big Mama Thornton
Wikipedia, Elvis Presley
Wikipedia, Hound Dog
Wikipedia, Elvis Presley filmography

Andrew Caine. Interpreting Rock Movies: The Pop Film and Its Critics in Britain. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Connie Kirchberg and Marc Hendrickx. Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and the American Dream. McFarland and Company, 1999.
Jerry Hopkins.  Elvis in Hawaii. Bess Press, 2002.
Frank Sinatra, interview with the Trenton Evening Times, Oct 28, 1957.


About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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8 Responses to Hound Dog: Big Mama Thornton, Freddie Bell and Elvis Presley

  1. Betty Londergan says:

    What an absolutely fascinating post, Tim!! I’m just catching up (because Gmail sequesters blog posts in a different inbox) — but I really enjoyed seeing Big Mama LIVE — what a great performance!! And I loved reading about the early days of Elvis, since we lived it! Somehow, I’d forgotten that he only lived to 42 (boy, does that seem YOUNG now!) — and the fascinating perspective on black/white crossover music and borrowing. I did not know Smokey Joe’s Cafe was about Leiber and Stoller … now I want to see THAT, too!!! THANKS for sharing all this great info!


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