This was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who also wrote "Hound Dog
," which became a huge hit when Elvis recorded it. Leiber and Stoller excelled at writing catchy Pop songs with elements of Blues music. Their songs could be very funny and clever, and often take place in unusual situations. Some of their other hits include "Love Potion #9
" and "On Broadway
." Mike Stoller played piano on this track.
This was featured in the Elvis movie of the same name, where Elvis plays a wrongly accused convict who becomes a star when he gets out. The film, which is considered one of the best of his 31 movies, is famous for the scene where Elvis performs this song in an elaborate dance number taking place in prison.
The movie score was the first one that Leiber and Stoller wrote. Stoller recalled to Mojo magazine April 2009: "We flew in to New York from LA, where were living at that time, and we had a hotel suite. We had a piano put in, in case the muse struck us, and Jean Aberbach - he and his brother (Julian) owned Hill & Range Songs and they had to deal with Colonel Parker but created Gladys Music and Elvis Presley Music-handed us a script for a movie. We threw it in the corner with the tourist magazines that you get in hotels. We were having a ball in New York, going to the theatre, going to jazz clubs to hear Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, doing a lot of drinking. On a Saturday morning- we'd been there about a week - Jean knocked on the door and said, in a very Viennese accent, 'Vell boys, you vill haf my songs for the movie.' Jerry said, 'Don't worry Jean, you'll have them' Jean said, 'I know.' And he pushed a big chair in front of the door and sat down and said, ' I'm going to take a nap and I'm not leaving until you have my songs.' So we wrote four songs (including this one) in about five hours and then were free to go out."
The line, "Number 47 said to number 3, You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see," is a sly reference to prison sex but was not offensive enough to create any controversy over the song.
This was a massive hit. It was #1 on the US pop charts for seven weeks, and also reached #1 on the country and R&B charts. In the UK, it entered the charts at #1, becoming the first song to do so.
Elvis was so big in 1957 that this smash wasn't even his biggest hit that year: according to Billboard
, that honor went to "All Shook Up
." The Top 5 that year illuminated the cultural divide between young Elvis fans and their parents, who were looking for something more subdued:
1) "All Shook Up" - Elvis
2) "Love Letters In The Sand" - Pat Boone
3) "Jailhouse Rock" - Elvis
4) "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear" - Elvis
5) "April Love" - Pat Boone
"Jailhouse Rock" has one of the most memorable intros in rock history: two guitar chords with snare drum hits. The intro last just six seconds, but the pattern repeats throughout the verses, establishing a firm musical hook that remains the envy of songwriters.
ABC television ran a series of educational cartoons called "Schoolhouse Rock" in the '70s. Millions of kids learned about grammar, history, and astronomy from them. The title was a play on this song.
Ozzy Osbourne played a Heavy Metal version of this in 1987 when he did a tour of prisons.
Sha-Na-Na played this at Woodstock in 1969. Very few of the attendees saw their performance, as they didn't go on until Monday morning (the event was scheduled to end at midnight on Sunday, but ran long). Jimi Hendrix followed Sha-Na-Na to close out the festival.
January 2005 marked what would have been Elvis Presley's 70th birthday. In commemoration, Elvis' record label re-released this in the UK where it went straight to #1, making it the oldest recording ever to top the UK charts. It also became the third single to hit #1 twice in the UK, following "Bohemian Rhapsody
" and "My Sweet Lord
," both of which were also posthumous re-releases.
In 2007, Chris Rock performed this on the Movies Rock TV special, where modern pop artists performed classic movie songs. Brown re-created Elvis' scene from the movie.
The Cramps recorded a version of this on the CD The Last Temptation of Elvis
. All profits went to a music therapy charity.
On November 4, 1957, this topped both the pop and R&B charts. In an odd twist, the next five positions on both charts were also the same songs: "Wake Up Little Susie" by the Everly Brothers, "You Send Me" by Sam Cooke, "Silhouettes" by the Rays, "Be-Bop Baby" by Ricky Nelson, and "Honeycomb" by Jimmie Rodgers.
This song was covered by the Blues Brothers, and featured at the end of the movie of the same name. The brothers and the band are seen playing this song to their fellow inmates.