It was on this date in 1958 that Elvis Presley’s version of Hound Dog was certified as selling three million copies in the United States a little more than two years after it had been released on July 12, 1956. It was only the third record ever to hit that mark and it did it in much shorter time than the others, both Christmas perennials—Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and Gene Autry’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. If there had ever been any doubt that the landscape of American popular music had been made over by an epic earthquake, there was none anymore.
Jazz based dance music had dominated the scene since the 1920s. But times—an economics—were changing. A long musician’s strike against the major record labels at the end of World War II had taught popular singers to put out product without the backing of Big Bands. The Bands themselves were enormously expensive to keep on the road. During the late '40’s hundreds folded leaving only a handful of big names and big draws still on the road. Radio stations found it cheaper to play records than broadcast live programs from their studios or remotes from hotels and ballrooms.
After decades of Depression and war the public seemed to yearn for something simpler, sweet, even nostalgic. It was an era of love songs and ballads where melody triumphed rhythm and of close harmony groups, both Black and White.
Around the edges of the culture, niche alternatives were on the rise. The raw styles of country and urban blues were morphing into a new style, dubbed rhythm and blues or R&B which attracted wide Black audiences and appealed to daring whites. Hillbilly and Cowboy music were merging into a new style called Country and Western and stars like Hank Williams were beginning to attract fans all over the country.
Meanwhile with the Big Bands on the wane, Jazz musicians were freed from rigid charts and arrangements and a return to the forms improvisational roots took startling new directions. Be Bop combo were pushing the edge of music—but it was “listening” music, not dance numbers and was too complex and sophisticated for the next generations teens who just wanted music they could party to.
It was in this post war time that rock and roll began to emerge. The origins of the style reach back—some blues recordings from as early as 1939 had elements of the new sound. There are various candidates for the first true rock and roll song. Among them That’s All Right Mama by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in 1946 (Presley’s cover his first hit record in ’54); Wynonie Harris’s 1948 version of Ray Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight; Rock This Joint by Jimmie Preston and the Prestonians in 1949; Saturday Night Fish Fry by Louis Jordan and The Tympany Five the same year; and Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats in 1951.
All of those were by Black artists growing directly out of urban blues infused with a raucous style and driven my electric guitars and/or saxophones. Others argue it wasn’t really rock and roll until it was done by White musicians and the introduction the Country and Western based Rockabilly. For these folks former country yodeler Bill Haley with his new band the Comets recorded Crazy Man Crazy in 1953 and the break-away hit Rock Around the Clock in ’54 represents the true birth of rock and roll.
The same year Sam Phillips was assembling his stable of young Rockabillies for his Sun Record Label in Memphis—Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Louis, and Johnny Cash, all of them familiar with call and response, blues, and Black gospel music. And they mined those songs as covers or inspirations for original tunes. They were shaking up music and getting air play from powerful disc jockeys with big teen age followings. By ’55 the rock and roll revolution was on—but not yet won.
So how did a silly song about a dog become the cultural steamroller that made Pressley truly a mega star and make infant rock and roll the undisputed leviathan of pop music? Well, to begin with it wasn’t about a dog….
The answer lies in the often overlooked “third root” of rock and roll—the largely Jewish New York based professional songwriters, most laboring for music publishers, who had been interpreting Black cultural for most of the 20th Century from Tin Pan Alley to the legendary Brill Building. In the case of Hound Dog the unlikely perpetrators were a pair of 19 year old upstarts, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who had already had some success peddling Hard Times for Charles Brown and Kansas City for Little Willie Littlefield recording as K. C. Loving, both moderate R&B hits in 1952.
In August of that year they were invited to meet Big Mama Thornton, a raw edged blues belter who was struggling to gain a foothold on Peacock Records. They were introduced by band leader Johnny Otis. They watched her rehearse and were impressed—and a little frightened. Leiber later said, “We saw Big Mama and she knocked me cold. She looked like the biggest, baddest, saltiest chick you would ever see. And she was mean, a ‘lady bear,’ as they used to call ‘em. She must have been 350 pounds, and she had all these scars all over her face. I had to write a song for her that basically said, ‘Go fuck yourself.’ But how to do it without actually saying it? And how to do it telling a story? I couldn’t just have a song full of expletives.”
After casting about for ideas they came upon using some Black street slang for a pimp or a gigolo living off a woman. The song was to be about her kicking him to the gutter. Once the idea took shape, the song itself came quickly. The pair reported jotting it down in ten or fifteen minutes on the car ride back to Stoller’s apartment. They were so excited that they turned right around and came back to Otis’s place where Leiber rushed to the piano and pounded it out standing up singing:
You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Quit snoopin’ ‘round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain’t gonna feed you no more.
Stoller and Leiber took over from Otis in producing the recording session for Peacock after Otis had to sit in as drummer and couldn’t run the session. The record was released in February 1953 to positive trade reviews and hit it big in Black urban areas. It spent fourteen weeks on the Billboard R&B charts, seven of them at number one and was the #3 R&B hit of the whole year.
Although most white Americans never heard the record, its success spawned numerous “answer songs.” These songs kept Peacock Records attorneys working overtime on copyright infringement cases. The most notable of those actions was against Sam Phillips who claimed writing credits for an answer song Bear Cat performed by Rufus “Hound Dog” Thomas. It was Sun Record’s first big hit. But when the courts found Phillips guilty, the fines and court costs nearly bankrupted the label. To save the company he had to sell the contract of his hottest property, Presley, to RCA Victor.
Among the most unusual of several covers was a Western Swing version by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
But the most influential was Philadelphia based Teen Records version by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, a White group which had become an established Las Vegas lounge act. Bell sanitized the lyrics for white audiences, just as the early songs of Little Richard and other Black acts had been. All the sexual innuendo was either removed and replaced by new lyrics or obscured. Just having the song sung by a man muddied the original core metaphor. The new version went:
You ain’t nothin but a hound dog
Cryin' all the time.
You ain’t nothin but a hound dog
Cryin’ all the time.
Well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit
And you ain’t no friend of mine.
This sanitized version was now literally about a dog. Unfortunately for Bell, tiny Teen Records did not have the muscle to make his recording anything more than a local Philadelphia hit.
While all of this was going on Leiber and Stoller themselves had become hot commodities. They had established their own label, Spark Records producing hits like Smokey Joe’s Cafe for The Robins. The label was later bought by Atlantic which left the boys in charge of their own division with the freedom to produce for other labels as well. Now high powered song writer/producers, they were soon churning out hit after hit in a legendary career that itself helped reshape.
In 1956 Presley was on the hunt for new material for RCA. As an ardent blues fan he knew and admired Big Mama Thornton’s original and of course was very familiar with Rufus Thomas’s ill-fated Sun label answer. Friends also reported that he liked to whistle and sing along with the Bob Wills version. So the song was on Presley mind when he and his backup band caught Bell’s act at the Silver Queen Bar and Cocktail Lounge in the Sands Casino. Bell was doing it as a comedy change-up number, a virtual burlesque including gyrating choreography all to a three beat so called “Latin riff.” Presley asked Bell for permission to record it, to which Bell eagerly agreed, hoping that it would hype sales of a planned LP that would include his own version.
Presley tried it out in live performances through the spring of ’56. Like Bell, he used it as comic relief. Audience reactions were strong. But when he closed one of his biggest dates yet in front of 7000 home town Memphis fans at the Cotton Festival the response was overwhelming. It became his closing number for many years.
He next tried it out on his first big national TV appearance on the Milton Berle Show on June 2. On Berle’s advice he performed for the first time without his guitar and his hip swinging gyrations became a national sensation and scandal. Appearing on the Steve Allen Show a few weeks later, Presley good naturedly let Allen turn the song into a parody of a parody crooning to a basset hound while in white tie and tails.
On July 2, 1956, the morning following the Allen show, Presley took it to RCA’s New York recording studios and it was released a scant two weeks later with Don’t Be Cruel on the B side. It was an immediate cross genre hit. It scored #1 on both the Country and Western and R&B Billboard charts and rose to #3 on the pop charts that year. Radio stations around the country were blasting the tune and juke boxes were collecting nickels as never before. The whole country was listening to Pressley and his Hound Dog.
Stoller was using some of his new wealth on a European vacation while all of this was going on and was unaware of it. He returned to the States on the ill-fated liner Andrea Doria which had sunk after collision with another liner off of Nantucket. Stoller was among the passengers rescued and Leiber was at the New York dock to greet him on July 26 with some startling news.
In their mutual memoirs, Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography they would recall that Leiber said: “We got a smash hit on Hound Dog,” Stoller said, “Big Mama’s record?” And Leiber replied: “No. Some white guy named Elvis Presley.” Stoller went on to comment, “I heard the record and I was disappointed. It just sounded terribly nervous, too fast, too white. But you know, after it sold seven or eight million records it started to sound better.”