With the upcoming release of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, I’ll be marking the occasion by reviewing all of Elvis Presley’s 18 #1 hits on Billboard including 11 that topped pre-Hot 100 charts and 7 that topped the Hot 100 after its 1958 inception.
Elvis Presley- “Hound Dog”
HIT #1: August 18, 1956 (b/w “Don’t Be Cruel”)
STAYED AT #1: 11 weeks
When people bring up the topic of cultural appropriation today, “Hound Dog” is often mentioned as an example specifically how a song originally recorded by a Black artist became more famous and known when the biggest white artist in the world covered it and got a massive hit out of it. One of the biggest knocks people make against Elvis’ legacy is how he got famous singing a genre that originated among Blacks and through appropriating that Black style for a white audience turned rock and roll into a genre forever associated to this day with white people than its Black originators.
In hip-hop, there’s often worry about an Elvis figure coming along meaning a white star who becomes big and takes hip-hop away from being a dominant Black genre. That legacy of Elvis explains Chuck D rapping this piece on Public Enemy’s classic “Fight The Power,” “Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me you see/Straight up racist that sucker was/Simple and plain.” Even Eminem, the biggest white rapper and the biggest selling rapper of all time, has referenced this dynamic in his music. Yet hip-hop for all of its crossover success with white audiences remains primarily a Black art form. Perhaps that doesn’t happen without the cautionary tale of rock and roll.
This kind of accusation against Elvis is obviously a very simplistic one, one that ignores greater forces at play that result in white artists getting greater success for doing the same type of music a Black artist does. It’s all a part of American pop music history but it doesn’t necessarily mean the white artists profiting were trying to usurp similar-sounding Black artists. Elvis was someone steeped in Black musical traditions and was quick to point out his influences and Black artists many of whom praised Elvis at the time for breaking down racial barriers for them at a time when other white artists would often sanitize their songs for white audiences.
Even with that, you can see why people today would get upset at Elvis over “Hound Dog.” Released in 1953, “Hound Dog” originally from blues singer Big Mama Thornton was a #1 R&B hit but she along with its songwriters didn’t see much money from it. Three years later when the King of Rock and Roll came across the song and put his touch on it, it became his biggest-selling song and for more than 35 years was the longest-running #1 song on the pop charts.
Ironically enough, “Hound Dog” was written by two white guys Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who in 1952 were two teenagers bonded by a love of blues and R&B trying to make it as a songwriting team. They had been invited one day by bandleader Johnny Otis to meet the blues singer Big Mama Thornton and after hearing her sing decided to write a song for her. Together, they came up with “Hound Dog,” a song about telling off a no-good gigolo using the kinds of innuendo popular in blues music. Leiber came up with the title as a placeholder for a title that in his words was more insinuating and sexy but Stoller got him to keep it as is.
In Big Mama Thornton’s hands, “Hound Dog” is one big sneering put down. Through her loud bluesy rasp, Thornton lets us know she isn’t having any of this guy calling him out on his lies like saying he was high class. This no-good guy continues to snoop around Thornton’s door but as she puts it “You can wag your tail but I ain’t gonna feed you anymore.” Musically, the original “Hound Dog” is simple but just as biting driven largely by noodly blues guitar and handclaps. It’s hard to judge it separately from the version we all know but this version is pretty good.
For Elvis, his version was not based on Big Mama Thornton but instead Freddie Bell and the Bellboys who were performing in Las Vegas at the Sands Casino in April 1956, the same casino where Elvis was booked to perform at. The Bellboys’ “Hound Dog” is dramatically different from Big Mama Thornton’s take with livelier instrumentation and a reworking of the lyrics with “snooping around my door” becoming “crying all the time” and the addition of “You ain’t never caught a rabbit you ain’t no friend of mine.” Hearing the Bellboys’ performance of “Hound Dog,” Elvis knew right away it was a song he wanted to do learning the song right away and adding it to his shows.
In its original form, “Hound Dog” was already a silly song and for Elvis, all he does in his take is amp up that silliness. The song is just the same two lines being repeated over and over but Elvis sounds like he’s having fun with it. He doesn’t have Big Mama Thornton’s biting snarl but still exhibits a playful kind of sexual danger that was a big part of his early image. Elvis doesn’t deliver “Hound Dog” as if he’s putting down a no-good partner but delivers it like it’s a song he enjoys singing.
Elvis’ band also has a fun time with the song giving it a very rollicking rock and roll rhythm complete with two guitar solos and loud snare drum rolls. Elvis himself would later come to dislike “Hound Dog” a lot in his later years as he would perform it less in his shows or often rush through it. I get it but in that moment he made “Hound Dog” into a fun little song. It’s one of those songs where it’s less about the lyrics but more about the pure energy that’s put into it.
Before “Hound Dog” was released or even recorded, Elvis was already teasing it to the world making two famous TV appearances. The first was The Milton Berle Show on June 5th where Elvis performs “Hound Dog” in its regular tempo before ending with a more slowed down rendition all while doing his famous hip swivels as teenage girls scream in the audience. This was watched by millions and generated lots of outrage from moral conservatives not liking the sexual nature of Elvis’ moves. Almost a month later on July 1st, Elvis appeared on The Steve Allen Show and after the Milton Berle controversy noticeably toned down his performance singing “Hound Dog” in a tux and suit to an actual Basset Hound making the song be literally about a dog.
The next day, Elvis went to the studio to record “Hound Dog” which was released a week later with the single placed alongside another song becoming an immediate smash adding to Elvis’ already massive fame. Nowadays, “Hound Dog” is often one of Elvis’ most well-known songs and one of the most well-known rock and roll in general but of course, you know he wasn’t anywhere near done yet with putting out classic records.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 1994’s Forrest Gump showing Elvis playing “Hound Dog” while at Forrest’s house where he gives Elvis the inspiration for his hip moves before Forrest and his mother watch him on The Milton Berle Show to her disgust:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Cypress Hill quoting a bit from “Hound Dog” on their 1995 track “Boom Biddy Bye Bye:”
(Cypress Hill’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “Insane In The Brain,” peaked at #19.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: It’s been a long, long time since I saw 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull but “Hound Dog” plays during the film’s opening sequence. Here’s that scene:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the video for Doja Cat’s “Vegas,” her contribution to the Elvis movie soundtrack, which has her rapping alongside a sample of Big Mama Thornton’s original “Hound Dog:”