This week’s selection, recorded in 1952, was remarkable for its association with many firsts. Released in March, 1953, it was the first song ever produced by composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and was to be the biggest hit ever for blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Her rendition would occupy the #1 slot on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues charts for seven weeks. Wasting no time, five country artists would record their own versions of this song during the following month.
Three years later, an aspiring, young musician had experienced a disappointing stint in Las Vegas from April 23-May 6, 1956. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys were apparently the hot act in town. The young man, likely at least a little disappointed and discouraged, attended one of their shows at The Sands. He very much liked their arrangement of the song, and asked Freddie if he would object to his recording his own version of the song. By May 16, 1956, this young musician began performing his own interpretation of the song, received a positive audience response, and typically used it as his closing song.
This young man’s subsequent recording of this song was released as the “B” side of a single on July 13, 1956. Both sides would rise to #1 on the charts independently, a rare achievement. An overnight sensation, this artist’s very first single (another song) had only recently made its first appearance on the Billboard Top 40 charts on March 10, 1956, occupying the #1 slot for eight weeks.
Selling more than 4,000,000 copies, this week’s selection would achieve a #1 ranking in July, 1956, and remain at that lofty position for a record eleven consecutive weeks, only to be replaced by another of his #1 hits. The song remained in the Top 40 for twenty-four consecutive weeks. The song would occupy the #1 position on all three of the Billboard charts in existence at the time: pop, country & western and rhythm & blues, another historical first. Despite an extremely successful career that would continue until his untimely death at the age of 42 in 1977, this would be the performer’s biggest hit single ever.
This version of the song ranks at #19 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, the highest ranking of his eleven numbers that made the list. In March of 2005, Q Magazine placed this song at #55 on the its list of Q Magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks.
Beginning in the 1970s, this song would appear on numerous movie soundtracks, including blockbusters such as American Graffiti, Grease, Forrest Gump, Lilo & Stitch, A Few Good Men (film) and Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
This week’s essay includes more cover versions than most, but features a virtual Who’s Who of the rock and roll and blues genres. Among the artists appearing this week are: Little Richard, Junior Wells/Buddy Guy, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimi Hendrix, Sha Na Na, The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Jeff Beck, and James Taylor. Cover versions have reportedly been recorded by a number of other greats, but could not be located by this writer, including: Chubby Checker, the Everly Brothers, Albert King, John Entwistle (bassist with The Who), Eric Clapton, Robert Palmer, Etta James and Koko Taylor.
Although many of you may have already guessed the identity of this week’s selection, to avoid any unnecessary confusion, without further ado, the song this week, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, first recorded by Big Mama Thornton, and Elvis Presley’s biggest hit, is the song “Hound Dog.”
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton with Kansas City Bill & Orchestra first released “Hound Dog” in 1953, which rose to #1 on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues charts, where it remained for seven weeks.
Billy Starr – 1953
Jack Turner and His Granger County Gang (1953) perform “Hound Dog” in somewhat of a Texas swing style, complete with some nice pedal steel guitar work…
Freddie Bell and The Bellboys took “Hound Dog” in a slightly different direction. Bell rewrote the lyrics in an attempt to appeal to a broader radio audience. Consequently, “Snoopin’ round my door” was replaced with “Cryin’ all the time” and “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” with “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you aint’ no friend of mine.” Their version enjoyed regional popularity, and also due in part to the group’s showmanship, including some rather flamboyant choreography, the band went on tour, which included a stop at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, where Presley would be inspired by their act in April, 1956.
This version features the addition of brass.
Elvis Presley performed “Hound Dog” during his second appearance on the Milton Berle Show, on June 5, 1956. At Berle’s suggestion, Presley appeared on stage without his guitar. Over 40,000,000 viewers saw the performance, and given his unique gestures, the predictable wave of controversy immediately followed. Elvis was to have some fascinating interactions with other television hosts, most notably Steve Allen, in connection with a July 1, 1956 appearance on his show.
“Hound Dog” was one of several major hits for Presley by the time of his October 28, 1956, performance on the Ed Sullivan Show and included the full-length television image of Elvis. By allowing this, Sullivan demonstrated far more daring than he would several years later when he banned The Doors for not striking the phrase “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” from their megahit, “Light My Fire.”
For more about the stories surrounding Elvis’ television appearances, you can find it here, in the section entitled, “Elvis Presley TV Appearances and Recording.”
On July 2, 1956, Elvis recorded “Hound Dog” at RCA’s New York City studios. This would be the first song on which the Jordanaires would provide backing vocals. The 31st take was selected for release, which would take place only eleven days later. In addition to remaining on at #1 on the pop charts for eleven consecutive weeks, it held down that position on the country & western charts for three weeks, and the rhythm & blues charts for one week.
“Hound Dog” was the “B” side of a single that included “Don’t Be Cruel” on the flip side. When “Hound Dog” finally slipped from the #1 spot, it was replaced by Presley’s “Love Me Tender.” Presley’s very first hit, which rose to #1 earlier that same year, was “Heartbreak Hotel.”
The following video showcases the picture disc issue of “A Legendary Performer Vol. 3” from the 1970’s, featuring the original mono release of “Hound Dog.” Enjoy!
Little Richard (1964)–In this version, the Little Richard’s vocals and the piano occupy center stage.
Junior Wells & Buddy Guy collaborate on this cover version which was included in Well’s debut album in 1965). This interpretation is notable in that the song is converted to a minor key, and also includes some nice blues harmonica work.
Jerry Lee Lewis (1969) – Live from the Toronto Peace Festival. “Hound Dog” graduates to one of the many rock festivals that were held in those days. On this clip, Lewis’ vocal, keyboard and theatrical talents are on full display.
Jimi Hendrix turns in a unique rendition of “Hound Dog” sometime in 1970 or earlier, released in November, 1988.
Sha Na Na perform live at Winterland, San Francisco, California in 1972. This performance was included in their album “Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, released in 1973.
The Rolling Stones affix their own indelible stamp on “Hound Dog” in this live performance from Memphis, in 1978.
John Lennon (Live in New York City) – 1980 or earlier
Although this writer isn’t particularly enamored with this version, it does seem to reflect some of the music trends of the late 1980s and might appeal to some Docudharma readers. Here are The Residents from 1989.
The Moutel’s (1992) perform a tribute to Rockapella’s acapella version of “Hound Dog.” It’s easy to forget that they are using only voices and handclaps.
Jeff Beck demonstrates his talents on guitar on this recording from the soundtrack of “Honeymoon in Las Vegas.” From 1992…
Status Quo turns in great performance all around on his high-energy, up-tempo version of “Hound Dog”, from 2000…
Agents Ja Jorma Kääriäinen – Hound Dog – 2001
From “Chicago Blues Reunion: Buried Alive in the Blues”, released in 2005 including Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites, Harvey Mandel, Tracy Nelson, Sam Lay, and Corky Siegel. The lead singer’s voice is somewhat reminiscent of the great Wilson Pickett.
James Taylor performs “Hound Dog” live at the Ottawa Bluesfest in 2008. Take a little dramamine (apparently ginger works as well) and enjoy!
Hot Blue Chrome performs live at Bosco’s in Topeka, Kansas, on May 9, 2009. Similar to the Junior Wells/Buddy Guy version from 1965, this band also uses a minor key in this high-energy blues-oriented interpretation. Suffice it to say that the female lead singer has a rather assertive voice. Members of the group include: David Gleue, bass, slide guitar, vocals; Mike Clifford, harp, vocals; Katie Miller, vocals; Adam Burress, guitar, vocals; Dr. Stephen Blum, drums; and Rev. Kev Centlivre, keys, guitar, vocals.