This was originally recorded in a blues style by Big Mama Thornton in 1953. Her version was a #1 R&B hit and by far her biggest success. Like many blues musicians, she never made much money, but was a big influence on many singers who did. In 1968, Janis Joplin recorded a song Thornton wrote called "Ball and Chain
," which appeared on several Joplin compilation albums after she died in 1970.
Elvis' version of this song is based on how he heard it performed by a Texas group called Freddie Bell and The Bell Boys, who released the song on the Teen label in 1955. In April 1956, Elvis was booked for two weeks at The New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. One night, Elvis and his band explored the Vegas strip and landed at the Sahara, where Freddie Bell and The Bell Boys were performing in the lounge. When they performed their comedic version of "Hound Dog," Elvis was impressed and decided to do his own in a similar vein.
Elvis used the same lyrics, which differed from the Big Mama Thornton original. In this approach to the song, Elvis is acting disappointed with his lover and repeating the lyrics, "Well, they said you was high-classed, but that was just a lie" six times. In Thornton's original, she sings the line twice as "You told me you was high class, but I can see through that."
This was one of the first big hits for the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were teenagers when they wrote it. Based on the success of "Hound Dog," Leiber and Stoller were hired to write many more songs for Elvis, as well as the score for his movie Jailhouse Rock
(including the famous title song
Working for Elvis was very good for Leiber and Stoller, but they didn't like what he did with "Hound Dog."
"It was nervous sounding," Leiber said in More Songwriters on Songwriting
. "It didn't have that insinuation that Big Mama's record had."
Stoller added, "It's something that really is sort of an imitation that never really turned out well."
In a 2001 talk with Rock's Backpages
, Leiber and Stoller explained that they thought of themselves as black, and were always surprised when they passed by a mirror. They went on to explain what it was like writing and recording this song with Big Mama Thornton. Says Leiber: "We'd actually written 'Hound Dog' 90 percent on the way over in the car. I was beating out a rhythm we called the 'buck dance' on the roof of the car. We got to Johnny Otis's house and Mike went right to the piano... didn't even bother to sit down. He had a cigarette in his mouth that was burning his left eye, and he started to play the song. We took the song back to Big Mama and she snatched the paper out of my hand and said, 'Is this my big hit?' And I said, 'I hope so.'
Next thing I know, she starts crooning 'Hound Dog' like Frank Sinatra would sing 'In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning.' And I'm looking at her, and I'm a little intimidated by the razor scars on her face, and she's about 280-320 pounds, and I said, 'It don't go that way.' And she looked at me like looks could kill and said - and this was when I found out I was white - 'White boy, don't you be tellin' me how to sing the blues.' We finally got through it.
Johnny brought Mike back in the room and asked him to sit down at the piano, which was not easy because Johnny had this female piano player who was built like Arnold Schwarzenegger. They finally exchanged seats and did the song the way it was supposed to sound. And that was one of those where we said, 'That's a hit.' And I thought immediately: We both said it, it's gonna put a hex on it!"
The Big Mama Thornton original version was the first song that Leiber and Stoller produced. Mike Stoller told Mojo magazine April 2009 what happened: "Johnny Otis was supposed to run the session. We had rehearsed and he'd played drums. When we got in the studio (it was) his regular drummer. It wasn't happening. I said, 'Johnny, you've got to play the drums, do what you did in rehearsal.' So he said, 'Who's going to run the session.' I said, 'We will.'"
When the line "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog" popped into Jerry Leiber's head, he considered "hound dog" a placeholder phrase. "I wanted something that was a lot more insinuating," he said in More Songwriters on Songwriting. "I wanted something that was sexy."
His partner Mike Stoller liked it and convinced him to leave it as is.
This was released as a single with "Don't Be Cruel
." It is the only single to have both sides reach #1 in the US. The single was #1 in the US for 11 weeks, a record that was not broken until 1992 by "End of the Road
" by Boyz II Men.
Regarding the #1 chart positions of the single, Joel Whitburn, who writes the definitive books on the subject
, told the Forgotten Hits newsletter: "As far as the two-sided Presley hit 'Hound Dog" / "Don't Be Cruel,' I've always tabulated that single 45 as two #1 hits. 'Hound Dog' was the first title to chart and the first one to be listed as the lead #1 song. Billboard's 'Best Sellers in Stores' chart listed the the #1 song on 8/18/56 as 'Hound Dog/Don't Be Cruel.' It was also shown that way when it first topped the 'Most Played in Juke Boxes' chart on 9/1/56. There is absolutely no doubt that the initial sales and 'buzz' about this record was for 'Hound Dog.' It was a smash #1 hit right out of the box. As airplay began to favor 'Don't Be Cruel,' the two titles were flip-flopped at #1, with 'Don't Be Cruel' actually showing more weeks as the #1 lead song. Again, I have always tabulated these two titles as two #1 songs. There is no way you can consider this 4-times platinum record as one #1 hit. And, neither does RIAA who awards gold and platinum selling records. They show 'Hound Dog' / 'Don't Be Cruel' as both receiving platinum designations."
After writing this song with Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller got married and went on a trip to Europe. He was returning on the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria in 1956 when it was rammed by another ship in fog off Nantucket Sound and eventually sank. Stoller and his new wife abandoned ship in a lifeboat and were rescued. About 50 of the 1,500 people on board died. When Stoller arrived at the dock at New York, Leiber was there to welcome him with the news that they had their first major hit with "Hound Dog," by a newcomer called Elvis Presley.
In a Rock's Backpages interview, Stoller recounts, "He assumed I was soaked, if I was alive. But he said, 'We got a smash hit on 'Hound Dog'.' And I said, 'Big Mama's record?' And he said, 'No. Some white guy named Elvis Presley.' And I heard the record and I was disappointed. It just sounded terribly nervous, too fast, too white. But you know, after it sold seven or eight million records it started to sound better. I should also say that the other things we did with Elvis I liked very much."
Presley's guitarist Scotty Moore played on a P-90-equipped Gibson L-5 plugged into a Ray Butts amp. There are two guitar solos in the song, and at the beginning of the second one, Moore made some sounds that guitarists have been unable to replicate since. Moore claimed that he didn't even know how he did it, making it one of the great guitar mysteries in rock.
Elvis and his his band recorded this song and "Don't Be Cruel" on July 2, 1956. It was a grueling session, with Elvis working himself and the band through an increasingly focused 31 takes. The sessions took place at RCA's studios in New York.
Elvis performed this song twice on national TV before he recorded it. The first performance was on The Milton Berle Show, June 5, 1956, which is where Elvis learned that hamming the song up as much as possible would get a huge reaction. The next performance was on the much more staid The Steve Allen Show on July 1, the day before they recorded the song. For this appearance, Elvis sang to a Basset Hound. He was not allowed to dance on the show, since Allen ran a family friendly program and Elvis' pelvis was not considered family friendly.
When this was reissued in the UK in 1978, it went to #24.
On the UK show Songbook Leiber and Stoller were asked what they thought of the Elvis version when they first heard it. Stoller said: "I thought it was nervous and too fast and they changed the words, some of them, because obviously the original lyric was a woman's song. I don't think they improved upon Jerry's lyrics."
Leiber: "Oh, I thought it ruined the song. It was a song that had to do with obliterated romance. In effect, she was saying, 'Get out of my house.' And 'you ain't caught a rabbit, and you ain't no friend of mine' is inane. It doesn't mean anything to me."
Stoller: "I agree with you and I always did. Except that after Elvis's record sold about 7 or 8 million the first release, I began to see some merit in it. (laughing)"
Asked what some of the original lyrics were, Leiber said, "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog, quit snoopin' 'round my door. You ain't nothin' but a hound dog, quit snoopin' 'round my door. You can wag your tail, I ain't gonna feed you no more. You told me you was high class, but I can see through that."
Especially in his later years, Elvis didn't like performing this live. At many of his shows, he rushed through the song or did a very short version. A good example can be seen on his 1973 "Aloha from Hawaii" concert.
This was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988.