Welcome to “Original Rock Legends!” To celebrate Geva’s final show this season, the hit musical Million Dollar Quartet directed by Hunter Foster, I’m taking you through a musical journey, uncovering the history behind the songs featured in Million Dollar Quartet.
This week, we’re exploring the legends behind Elvis Presley’s music:
“Hound Dog” –1956 (original 1952)
“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”
Elvis Presley recorded “Hound Dog” shortly after moving to RCA from Sun Records, and it remains one of his biggest hits today. Even though “Hound Dog” brings up immediate associations with Elvis Presley, the song had actually been around for a few years before the King recorded it.
In 1952, a soon-to-be-famous Los Angeles songwriting team, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, were asked to write a song for R&B singer Big Mama Thornton when she joined the Johnny Otis Band in California. Big Mama had a commanding, intimidating presence, and Lieber and Stoller wanted to capture that in their song for her. They came up with the lyrics in 15 minutes, then sorted out the music while beating out rhythmic patterns on the roof of their car. When Big Mama recorded “Hound Dog,” it became an instant hit, and stayed at #1 on the R&B charts for seven weeks.
Despite the popularity of the Big Mama version, Presley claims to have been inspired instead by a different artist: Freddie Bell in Las Vegas, who spoofed the original lyrics to include “You ain’t never caught a rabbit,” and other nonsense lines that we take for granted today. Presley incorporated the song into his act immediately following that first 1956 gig in Vegas.
When it came time to record the tune at RCA, some say Presley made is band record 31 takes, until he was satisfied with the 28th recording. The perfectionism must have paid off, because the recording remains Presley’s best-selling song (over 10 million copies globally) and is #19 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
Let’s listen to Big Mama Thornton’s original 1952 recording of “Hound Dog:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPkMsq9hgpc
Now, here’s Freddie Bell’s version with the revised lyrics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJQ-fDb4M4s
And finally, Elvis Presley (and his infamous hips) singing “Hound Dog” on TV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzQ8GDBA8Is
Thanks for tuning in to “Original Rock Legends!” We’ll be back on Monday with more stories behind the legendary musicians who defined rock ‘n’ roll. This program is sponsored by Geva Theatre Center, where the Million Dollar Quartet comes back to life, LIVE onstage, now through June 25th. Until next time, rock on my friends!