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"Hound Dog"
Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley

Leiber & Stoller’s ‘Hound Dog’ gave Elvis his fourth American No.1 way back in 1956 and today, nearly half a century on, the song remains one of the building blocks of rock’n’roll.

Earlier that year, Elvis had spent two weeks headlining in Las Vegas. “It was awful” he admitted later. But one good thing did emerge from his time in the desert: Elvis heard a novelty song that he resolved to do something with. As Mike Stoller recalled later, originally, the song had been written for a female singer:

“There was a group, Freddie Bell & The Bell Boys, working in the lounge in Vegas who had recorded it. They had altered the lyrics - the altered lyrics don't really mean terribly much. They made it sound like the song was written about a dog. Big Mama's record had the original lyrics, which were written about a freeloading gigolo.”

"Hound Dog" was cut in New York one sweltering afternoon during July 1956, but the young Elvis was a perfectionist and, despite the heat, he took 31 takes to nail it. Just eleven days later the single was in the shops.

Elvis Presley
"Hound Dog started to sell first ..."

But "Hound Dog" was notorious even before it went on sale. Performing the song on TV’s Milton Berle Show a month prior to its release, Elvis had swivelled his hips in a very suggestive manner, implying that he had far lewder things on his mind than walking the dog!

Throughout Middle America, respectable citizens were scandalised. One shocked critic called it “a display of primitive physical movement difficult to describe in terms suitable to a family newspaper.”

The song’s composers were amazed at the furore. Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller had been writing together since 1950 and had already enjoyed R&B hits with Little Esther and Johnny Otis, and a No.1 on the R&B chart with Big Mama Thornton’s version of "Hound Dog" - but Elvis had sent their song stratospheric.

MIke Stoller
"It was virtually an unknown song before Presley did it."

By the time Elvis appeared on the Steve Allen Show, just a few days before the release of  "Hound Dog", TV producers were making sure Elvis didn't offend. This time round, Elvis stood stock still and sang the song to a very bored-looking basset hound!

Steve Allen
"I decided to put Elvis in tails and build a dignified set."

Could 3 be the lucky number behind the magic of 'Hound Dog'? There's the explosive vocal entry on the bluesy flattened third (it later punctuates "High Class"). The rhythmic umbilical chord that gets you in the gut is the bass pushing the third beat, again on the third note of the scale. And listen out for the quicktime claps that lift the whole production on the third section.
Dominic King

When it came to “Hound Dog", the composers had always preferred Big Mama’s original but it was Elvis’s hit version that gave them their big break, and Mike Stoller was always grateful that he had persuaded his partner not to sell the song for $3,000.

Recommended Reading
Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick, Abacus. 1995
Careless Love: The unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick, Little, Brown. 1999
Elvis: the Number Ones: The Secret History of the Classics by Patrick Humphries, Ebury Press. 2002

... an excellent representation of what Elvis meant in the '50s.

Ian Mackay, New Jersey

 Listen to Scotty Moore on his guitar solo

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