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The Originals Vol. 15 – Elvis edition 2

January 28th, 2009 3 comments

Big Mama Thornton – Hound Dog.mp3
Freddie Bell & the Bellboys – Hound Dog.mp3
Elvis Presley – Hound Dog.mp3

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, 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).

elvis-hound-dogBefore the session, the story goes, RCA had procured the first recording of the Leiber/Stoller composition, Big Mama Thornton’s blues rendition. Everybody was aghast: they thought it was horrible, 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. A month before the recording session, Elvis had performed the song on The Milton Berle Show, more or less the way he was going to record it on 2 July (Video clip). 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 (VIDEO) when, wearing a tuexedo, he 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. Allen had a way of humiliating Elvis. Another time, he had Elvis playing an inarticulate hillbilly [!] in what by all accounts was a particularly tasteless sketch). The Berle performance, seen by a reported 40 million people, had created a storm of protest by the guardians of morality at Elvis’ “vulgarity” (just see his movements 2:04 into the video to understand why it might have been controversial in the mid-1950s). Could anybody really have been so oblivious as to regard Rainey’s record as a demo, as if Elvis had no idea what to do with the song?

freddie-bell-the-bellboysThe truth is that Elvis didn’t base his version on Big Mama Thornton at all, but on the cover by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, An Ital0-American band he had seen during his discouraging concert engagement in Vegas in April/May 1956. Having ascertained that Bell wouldn’t mind, Elvis quickly included Hound Dog in his setlist. He probably was aware of Thornton’s version, and perhaps heard some of the country covers that had been released. But Elvis’ Hound Dog is entirely a reworking of the Bellboys’, 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”), but happily dispensing with the lupine howls.

big-mama-thornton-hound-dogBell 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), also in 1956. Bell got no writing credit for Hound Dog. The writing credit remained entirely with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were still R&B-obsessed teenagers when they were commissioned by the producer Johnny Otis to write a song for Big Mama Thornton in 1952. They did so in 15 minutes (when the song became a million-seller for Elvis, Otis claimed co-authorship. He lost that case). Thornton’s recording became a #1 hit on the R&B charts in 1953 (Video). 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 produce Elvis.

Three years after Thornton’s hit, Stoller honeymooning on board of the sinking Andrea Doria. His life was spared (and, like Leiber, he is still with us), and 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, 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 the 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.

Elvis’ Hound Dog went on to sell 4 million copies in its first release in the US; it’s flip side, the wonderful Don’t Be Cruel, also reached #1. In Britain, the critics were not enthusiastic, even if Hound Dog became a big hit there too. The jazzheads at the venerable Melody Maker were particularly unimpressed. In an exceptionally scathing review, which described Hound Dog as being possessed by “sheer repulsiveness coupled with the monotony of incoherence”, Steve Race opined: “I fear for the country which ought to have the good taste and the good sense to reject music so decadent.” He had no advice as to how one might repel the Rock ‘n’ Roll tide, but with regard to Elvis, he rather deliciously offered to leave him  “with his ‘rectinbutter houn dogger’ and merely echo his last and only comprehensible line: ‘You ain’t no friend of mine’.”

Also recorded by: Billy Starr (1953), Tommy Duncan (1953), Eddie Hazelwood (1953), Jack Turner (1953), Cleve Jackson (1953), Gene Vincent (1956), Scotty Moore (1964), Everly Brothers (1965), The Easybeats (1967), Jimi Hendrix (1967), Nat Stuckey (1969), Ross McManus (1970), Albert King (1970), James Burton (1971), John Entwistle  (1973), Sha Na Na (1973), Johnny Farago (1977), Ral Donner (1979), Shakin’ Stevens (1983), Tales Of Terror (1984), The Residents (1989), Eric Clapton (1989), Züri West (as Souhung, 1990), Jeff Beck & Jed Leiber (1992), Marva Wright (1993), Bryan Adams (1994), Big Time Sarah and the BTS Express (1996), The Lord Lucan Quartet (1999), Jimmy Barnes (2000), Status Quo (2000), Etta James (2000), The Willy DeVille Acoustic Trio (2003), Robert Palmer (2003), Porterhouse Bob (2005), James Taylor (2008) a.o.

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Tippie & the Clovers – Bossa Nova Baby.mp3 (new link)
Elvis Presley – Bossa Nova Baby.mp3

tippie-the-cloversAnother Leiber & Stoller composition, Bossa Nova Baby has been unjustly regarded by some as a bit of a displeasing novelty number from an Elvis movie (1963’s Fun In Acapulco). Even Elvis is said to have been embarrassed by it. If so, he had no cause: it may not be a bossa nova — it’s too fast for that — but it has a infectious tune and a genius keyboard riff which begs to be sampled widely. Perhaps it was the lyrics which had Elvis allegedly shamefaced, but the lines “she said, ‘Drink, drink, drink/Oh, fiddle-de-dink/I can dance with a drink in my hand’” are not much worse than some of the doggerel our man was forced to croon in his movie career as singing racing driver/pineapple heir/bus conductor. Or perhaps Elvis was embarrassed by the idea of including a notional bossa nova number in a movie set in Mexico.

Tippie & the Clovers, who were signed to Leiber and Stoller’s Tiger label, recorded it first in 1962 to cash in on the bossa nova craze. Apparently the composer’s preferred the Clovers’ version of Elvis’. These were the same Clovers, incidentally, who had scored a #23 hit with Love Potion No. 9 (also written by Leiber & Stoller and later covered to greater chart effect by the Searchers) on Atlantic in 1959.

Also recorded by: Cosmic Voodoo (2007)

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Jerry Reed – Guitar Man.mp3
Elvis Presley – Guitar Man.mp3

jerry-reedJerry Reed was a country singer who toiled for a dozen years before scoring a hit in 1967 with Tupelo Mississippi Flash — a song about Elvis. The same year Elvis chose to record Reed’s Guitar Man (the composer is listed as Jerry Hubbard, the singer’s real surname), and Reed played guitar on it. In 1968, Elvis also had a hit with Reed’s US Male, originally written in 1966. Reed, who died last August, had enjoyed some success as a songwriter before (such as Johnny Cash’s A thing called love) and later became a three-time Grammy winner, including one for his 1970 LP of duets with occasional Elvis associate Chet Atkins, and part-time movie actor, usually as a Burt Reynolds sidekick.

For Elvis, Guitar man was a redemption of sorts after the degradation of Clambake. His performance of the song at the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special is one of the best moments of the show.

Also recorded by: Bob Luman (1969), Jesus and Mary Chain (1990), Junior Brown (2001)

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Bing Crosby – Blue Hawaii.mp3
Elvis Presley – Blue Hawaii.mp3

waikiki-weddingWe’ll take a look at the more famous hit from Elvis’ 1961 movie Blue Hawaii — one of his most popular and the one with his best-selling soundtrack — in the next Elvis Originals Special on Friday.

Blue Hawaii was written by Leo Robin & Ralph Rainger (who also wrote Bob Hope’s signature song Thank You For The Memory) for the 1937 movie Waikiki Wedding, starring Bing Crosby and Shirley Ross. Crosby recorded it for the movie and scored a #5 hit with it that year. Robin’s other great contribution to music was to author the Marilyn Monroe hit Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.

Also recorded by: Frank Sinatra (1958), Willie Nelson (1992), David Byrne (2008)

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Brenda Lee – Always On My Mind.mp3
Elvis Presley – Always On My Mind.mp3

brenda-leeDepending on where you live and how old you are, this may be Elvis’ song or Willie Nelson’s, or perhaps the Pet Shop Boys’ (who had a hit with it in late 1987 after earlier performing it on a TV special to mark the 10th anniversary of Elvis’ death). Originally it was Brenda Lee’s, released in May 1972. It was not a big hit for her, reaching only #45 in the country charts. Somehow Elvis heard it and found the lyrics expressed his emotions at a time when the marriage to Priscilla was collapsing. He recorded it later in 1972. Released as the b-side to the top 20 hit Separate Ways, Always On My Mind was a #16 hit in the country charts. In the UK, however it was a top 10 hit, and became better know in Europe than in the US.

The song was co-written by the singer Mark James, who will feature in a future instalment of the Elvis Originals series with a song which also articulated Elvis’ marital emotions. Another co-writer was Wayne Carson (Thompson), who a few years earlier had written the ’60s classic The Letter, a hit for Elvis’ fellow Memphians the Box Tops.

Also recorded by: Willie Nelson (1982), Big Daddy (1985), David Hasselhoff (1985), Pet Shop Boys (1987), Alvin & the Chipmunks  (1988), The Starsound Orchestra (1992), James Galway (1994), David Axelrod (1995), Chris de Burgh (1995), Caroline Henderson (1997), Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson (1998), David Osborne (1998), James Last (1998), El Vez (1999), Willie Nelson, Jon Bon Jovi & Richie Sambora (2002), Anne Murray (2002), DJ QuickSilver presents Base Unique (2002), Jade Villalon (2002), B.B. King (2003), Fantasia Barrino  (2004), Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (2004), Ryan Adams and The Cardinals (2005), Julio Iglesias (2006 – what took him so long?), Michael Bublé (2007), Roch Voisine (2008) a.o.

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