RCA Studios, New York. Monday, 2 July 1956. Elvis turned up for his third and final recording session there to lay down the tracks for “Hound Dog”, the song’s eventual b-side, “Don’t Be Cruel”, and the ballad “Any Way You Want Me”.
By now, Elvis had become confident enough to take charge of the session, for all intents and purposes acting as the producer. He had decided which songs to record, and would run through as many takes as necessary for the perfect recording. Occasionally, when a backing musician would make a mistake, he would sing a note out of key or commit another error, forcing another take. In the seven-hour session, 31 takes of Hound Dog were recorded (and 28 of Don’t Be Cruel). Elvis listened to them all, narrowed down the choices. Eventually, he settled for take 18 of Hound Dog (some sources say it was number 28, others yet suggest the final one).
Before the session, the story goes, RCA had procured the first recording of the Leiber/Stoller composition, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton’s blues rendition from 1953, to know their star was planning to record. Everybody was aghast: they thought it was horrible, and were unable to comprehend why Elvis would want to record that, as Gordon Stoker of the vocal backing group The Jordanaires later recalled. Stoker and the other puzzled people in the studio obviously did not watch TV.
Almost a month before the recording session, on 5 June, Elvis had performed the song, hip-swivellingly, on The Milton Berle Show, more or less the way he was going to record it on 2 July. DJ Fontana had already introduced the drum roll between the verses, and Scotty Moore the guitar solo. He performed the song again on TV the day before the recording session: the performance on The Steve Allen Show when, wearing a tuxedo, Presley had to sing the song to a bemused, top-hatted basset hound. Elvis was a good sport about it, at one point even laughing at the absurd set-up. He later recalled it as the most peculiar experience of his career—and that presumably includes all those bizarre movies. The Berle performance, seen by a reported 40 million people, had created a storm of protest by the guardians of morality at Elvis’ “vulgarity”. Could anybody really have been so oblivious as to regard Rainey’s record as a blueprint, as if Elvis had no idea what to do with the song?
The truth is that Elvis didn’t base his version on Big Mama Thornton at all. In fact, the song had crossed the tracks within weeks of Thornton’s record, with versions by country acts such as Eddie Hazelwood, Betsy Gay, Bob Wills, Jack Turner and Billy Starr. But it was a 1955 cover by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys which provided the template for Elvis’ interpretation. Elvis had seen the Italo-American band during his discouraging concert engagement in Vegas in April/May 1956. Having ascertained that Bell wouldn’t mind, Elvis quickly included their reworked “Hound Dog” in his setlist.
Elvis probably was aware of Thornton’s version, and perhaps heard some of the country covers that had been released; one source says Elvis was familiar with in 1953. But Elvis’ “Hound Dog” is entirely a cover of the Bellboys’ template, incorporating their sound and modified lyrics (“Cryin’ all the time” for “Snoopin’ round my door”, “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine” for “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” and so on). Happily Elvis dispensed with the lupine howls. What he produced was arguably the first ever punk song.
Bell and his band enjoyed a mostly undistinguished recording career, with only one real hit, “Giddy Up A Ding Dong”, which was much bigger in Europe than it was in the US, in 1956. Adapted lyrics notwithstanding, Bell received no writing credit for Elvis’ “Hound Dog”. The writing credit remained entirely with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were still R&B-obsessed teenagers when in 1952 they were commissioned by the producer Johnny Otis to write a song for Big Mama Thornton. They did so in 15 minutes. Otis claimed co-authorship, and his co-credit appeared on the label of the Thornton single. Leiber & Stoller fought him in court, and won. Thornton’s recording became a #1 hit on the R&B charts in 1953. Her 12-bar blues inspired a plagiarised response song, which turned out to be the first ever record released by Sun Records, Sam Phillips’ label which would go on to discover Elvis.
Three years after Thornton’s hit, Stoller honeymooned on board of the sinking Andrea Doria. His life was spared. Returning to New York, he was greeted at the pier by Leiber with the news that “Hound Dog” had become a smash hit. “Mama Thornton?” Stoller asked. “No, some white kid named Elvis Presley,” replied Leiber.
The songwriters, R&B purists both, resented Elvis’ version. When, inevitably, they were commissioned to write for Elvis a year later, for the Jailhouse Rock film, they were not particularly happy. As a form of revenge, Leiber wrote for Elvis to sing this line in the title track: “You’re the cutest little jailbird I ever did see.” The prison in Jailhouse Rock was not co-ed. When they finally met Elvis, the songwriters realised that Elvis was a kindred spirit who genuinely shared their love for R&B, and they became good friends. Stoller even appeared in the film, as a piano player.
There have been many cover versions of “Hound Dog”, drawing from both Thornton’s and Presley’s templates (but not from the country versions that came after the former and before the latter). The division is fairly predictably between those who are ejecting a freeloader and those who note in the titular canine an Elmer Fuddian rate of failure in hunting down rabbits.
Blues aficionadoes like Eric Clapton will opt for the Big Mama original, with its coherent lyrics in which the term “hound dog” serves as a euphemism for something quite rude — “something like motherfucker”, according to Leiber. The Elvis fans tend to pay tribute to his doggerel version — and to him. In his live version John Lennon drawls “Elvis, I love ya”. The Rolling Stones in their horrible 1978 live version from Memphis provide an example of when a tribute is exactly the opposite.
Jerry Lee Lewis borrows from Elvis’ sound but goes with Thornton’s lyrics. Conversely, blues master Albert King’s version is melodically closer to Thornton, but uses the Presley lyrics. And the Everly Brothers employ a martial beat.
Pat Boone, on an Elvis tribute album whose cover references the gold suit sleeve, croons to a pseudo baroque backing before shifting gear into what might be called an easy listening rock & roll groove which even by 1963 would have sounded hopelessly dated. At one point Patrick sings one of the aggressively ungrammatical lines of the Presley version, and then “corrects” it: “You have not never caught a rabbit and you aren’t no friend of mine.” One suspects that Boone did not cherish the song. Rockin’ Rocky Rockwell also betrayed no fondness for the song in what appears to be a mocking take on the Lawrence Welk Show in 1956. Chubby Checker’s Hound Dog is, obviously, “twisting all the time”.
If the twisting and surfing versions provide a time capsule, then so might the 1977 version by the Puhdys, East Germany’s leading rock band at the time. One might imagine Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev boogying along to it after a hard day of watching goose-stepping soldiers and interminable processions of tanks on the International Day of Glorious Proletarian Combine Harvester Soviet Friendship Parade.
Obviously Shakin’ Stevens did a version, and does well with a rough-vocaled uptempo boogie treatment, also from 1977. T. Rex’s outtake came out only in 1993; I don’t know when it was recorded, but it regrettably defies all glam expectations as Bolan comes across all whiney folk singer with “Hound Dog”.
Sigue Sigue Sputnik did their version in 2001, performing it in the way their 1980s incarnation might have expected music to sound like in the year 2000, while Tom Jones’ take sounds exactly as you’d think it would, as do both Jimi Hendrix versions sound as you might imagine them to, even if they are very different from one another (1969’s “Hound Dog Blues” features Traffic’s Chris Woods on sax).
Among the best re-imaging is, surprisingly, James Taylor’s 2009 take. I rather like Betty Everett’s soul cover (like Taylor’s, using Thornton lyrics) from 1964’s It’s In His Kiss LP, or the burning southern soul track by Ruby Andrews, whose invitation to “wag your tail” might mean exactly what we think it does. But the best version of “Hound Dog” is the one which Elvis Presley recorded that summer’s day in 1956 in New York, take number 18.
And count the number of versions in which some barking, woofing or howling takes place — starting with the original.
Big Mama Thornton (1953) • Billy Starr (1953) • Eddie Hazelwood (1953) • Betsy Gay (1953) • Jack Turner (1953) • Little Esther (Phillips, 1953) • Freddie Bell & the Bellboys (1956) • Elvis Presley (Milton Berle Show, June 5, 1956) • Elvis Presley (Steve Allen Show, July 1, 1956) • Elvis Presley (1956) • Rockin’ Rocky Rockwell (1956) • Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps (1956) • Jimmy Breedlove (1958) • Chubby Checker (1960) • Sammy Davis Jr (as part of a medley with “What’d I Say, 1961) • Don Lang & The Twisters (1962) • Pat Boone (1963) • Betty Everett (1964) • The Surfaris (1964) • Little Richard (1964) • Big Mama Thornton with Buddy Guy (1965) • The Easybeats (1966) • Chuck Jackson (1966) • Duffy’s Nucleus (1967) • Jimi Hendrix Experience (1967) • Jimi Hendrix (as Hound Dog Blues, 1969) • Albert King (1969) • Ruby Andrews (1972) • Conway Twitty (1972) • John Lennon (live 1972) • John Entwistle (1973) • Jerry Lee Lewis (1974) • Elvis Presley (live in Chicago, November 1976) • Puhdys (1977) • Shakin’ Stevens (1977) • The Rolling Stones (live in Memphis, 1978) • Sha-Na-Na (1978) • Scorpions (1978)• James Booker (1982) • Link Wray (1982) • Junior Wells (1983) • Tales Of Terror (1984) • Hugo Strasser und sein Tanzorchester (1978) • Lonnie Mack (as Hound Dog Man, with Stevie Ray Vaughan Man, 1985) • The Delmonas (1986) • Arthur Brown (1988) • Eric Clapton (1989) • Jeff Beck (1992) • Eddy Clearwater (1992) • Koko Taylor (1993) • T.Rex (released 1993) • Carl Perkins (1994) • Bryan Adams (1994) • Susan Tedeschi (1995) • Tom Jones (1999) • The Residents (2000) • Etta James (2000) • Status Quo (2002) • Sigue Sigue Sputnik (2002) • Robert Palmer (2003) • The Stray Cats (2004) • Macy Gray (2004) • James Taylor (2009)
(PW in comments)
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