World’s Strangest

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The Story of Elvis Presley’s "Hound Dog"

tNeatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website.

The classic song “Hound Dog” was released in 1952 and was number one on the charts for seven weeks. Yes, that was 1952. Okay, before you jump the gun, let me tell you, this original version of “Hound Dog” had nothing to do with Elvis Presley. The first version of “Hound Dog” was recorded by a 25-year-old African-American rhythm and blues singer named Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. The song was a smash hit and sold almost two million copies. Sadly, “Big Mama” Thornton hardly collected any of the profits she rightfully deserved.

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Alright, now lets skip up to the spring of 1956. A young rock and roll singer named Elvis Presley was the hottest act in show business. The hip-shaking Elvis already had number one records and albums and was selling out live concerts all over America. But the red-hot Elvis was currently experiencing his first bit of comeuppance.

In April of ‘56 Elvis committed to a two-week booking in Las Vegas at the Venus room of the new Frontier Hotel. Elvis was declared a flop by Las Vegas audiences and critics alike, playing nightly to half-bored adults who failed to fall under his spell as their teenaged kids had. Being a flop in Las Vegas (or anywhere) is no fun, and after giving a less-than-spectacular show to a less-than-enthused crowd one night, Elvis drifted over to another hotel to take in a show.

bThe group onstage was Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. They gave their own version of Willa Mae’s “Hound Dog,” a more souped-up, rockier version. Elvis broke up when he first heard the funny song with its strange lyrics. Soon, Elvis was coming to see Freddie and his Bellboys every night, and yes, every time they sang “Hound Dog,” Elvis would crack up hysterically.

Now we cut to July 1, 1956. TV host Steve Allen featured the 21-year-old Elvis as the guest star on his television program The Steve Allen Show. Steve was trying to “tame” the reckless rock and roll whirling dervish and he had poor Elvis appear on his show in a formal tuxedo and tails.

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And so, in what Elvis would later call “the most embarrassing moment” of his career, he appeared, singing “Hound Dog” to a Bassett hound (!!!) while wearing his white tie and tails. No hip-wiggling, no gyrations, Elvis was directed to just stand there and sing the song to the bored-looking mutt named Sherlock. Elvis dutifully did what he was told and the whole “Hound Dog” thing might have just ended like the memory of a bad toothache for a disillusioned Elvis.

But every once in a while (although not often enough), a terrible experience develops into something wonderful.

The very next day (July 2, 1956) after The Steve Allen Show, Elvis reported to RCA studios to cut a few sides. Yep, you guessed it, “Hound Dog” was on the agenda. It took the super-sensitive Elvis 31 takes to get just the right version of “Hound Dog” on acetate. But after 31 takes, he knew he had one that felt right.

Elvis used his recollection of Freddie Bell and the Bellboys as the template for his “Hound Dog” version, This recording session was also the first in which Elvis acted as the session producer.

Interestingly, Elvis not only rock and rolled “Hound Dog” up, but he changed the original lyrics. Elvis added in the strange line “You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine” to the Leiber-Stoller lyrics. This odd lyric, like a shake of salt in a perfect stew, morphed a raw diamond into a perfectly polished gem.

It is believed this lyric switch was originally performed by Freddie Bell and his Bellboys, but Elvis also did some lyric-switching of his own. In the “Big Mama” Thornton version, she sings, “Well they said you was high class, I can see through that.” She sings this lyric twice on her version. Elvis changed this lyric to “Well they said you was high class, but that was just a lie.” Elvis sang his revised lyric six times in his recording.

6In the weeks between laying frown the track and its release (incredibly, as the B-side of “Don’t Be Cruel”), hardly an interview went by without Elvis being asked when the song would come out. Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, joked with RCA executives that the song was going to be so big that the company would have to change its symbol from the “Victor Dog” to the “Hound Dog.”

When “Hound Dog” was finally released in July of 1956, it lived up to all the hype. When originally released, it was, ironically, kept out of the #1 spot by its own A-side. In compensation for its eclipse by “Don’t Be Cruel” on the pop chart, “Hound Dog” made it to #1 on the R&B and country charts. But soon, “Hound Dog” itself became the #1 pop song, a rare first in recording history, both sides of a record topping the charts.

Later, both “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” were awarded platinum status. On top of all these titles, “Hound Dog” was also voted the #1 most-played song on juke boxes on September 1, 1956.

Elvis instantly added “Hound Dog” to his repertoire, and it immediately became the bring-down-the-house finale to all his live shows. He platted his final show at the Louisiana Hayride with “Hound Dog” in December 1956 and sang it every opportunity that came upon TV that year.

Elvis performed a high-energy version of “Hound Dog” in his legendary “Comeback Special” in 1968. When he returned to performing live in Las Vegas in July of 1969, Elvis introduced “Hound Dog” as his “special song.”

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Although in his later years, Elvis tended to give his early rock and roll classic songs short shrift in his concerts, he knew no Elvis concert would ever be complete without at least a perfunctory version of his most famous tune. In his later years, Elvis was to christen one of his private planes The Hound Dog.

More than any of Elvis’ hit songs, the stirring opening notes of “Hound Dog” instantly conjure up the indelible image of the wild, uncontrolled singer with the sideburns and the jumping beans in his jeans. It almost seems a kind of tacit agreement amongst Elvis fans the world over that “Hound Dog” is the “theme song” -his trademark.

In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine placed Elvis’ “Hound Dog” at #19 in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988.

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