Elvis Presley's pedigree chum

'Lives of the Great Songs', the 'IoS' series which became a book, is now out in an expanded paperback edition. In this new extract, Nicholas Barber sniffs out the history of 'Hound Dog'
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IN 1956 a liner named the Andrea Doria was rammed by a Swedish vessel, the Stockholm, and sank, claiming 43 lives. The survivors were picked up from their lifeboats by an American frigate and deposited in New York. One of those survivors was Mike Stoller. Jerry Leiber was waiting for him at the pier. He carried a silk summer suit and a shirt, wrongly assuming that his partner would be soaking.

"You know, Jerry, you're not as tall as I am," chuckled Stoller when he saw the spare clothes. "Those slacks are not gonna fit me anyway!" "Well, you're ungrateful for a man who was just snatched from the jaws of death," said Leiber, and went on to explain that Stoller had more to celebrate than merely being saved from a watery grave.

"We got a smash hit record," he announced.

"What?"

" 'Hound Dog'."

"You mean that old Big Mama thing?"

"No, it's been covered by some new kid called Elvis Presley."

"Elvis who?"

Elvis Presley. Nowadays it's impossible to think of "Hound Dog" without thinking of his name. And vice versa: if you think of Presley, there's a good chance that "Hound Dog" will bound into your mind soon after. But as any Elvis fan worth their Graceland souvenir tea-towel knows, Leiber and Stoller didn't write "Hound Dog" for Presley. And the song that Presley sang wasn't quite the one that Leiber and Stoller wrote.

They composed the original in Los Angeles in 1952. The bandleader Johnny Otis called them round to the garage he had converted into a semi-open- air studio, and asked them to listen to Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton. Thornton was a blues singer who hailed from Montgomery, Alabama, and had since relocated to Texas and signed to Peacock Records. She was in Los Angeles to record with Otis, who hoped that the two 19-year-olds could provide some material. "We were very impressed with her: not only her voice, but also her physical presence," Mike Stoller tells me, on the phone from Los Angeles. Jerry Leiber, calling from New York the next day, agrees. "She was a scary-looking creature. She must have weighed 200 pounds, and she had scars all over her face." The writers wanted to come up with a song as mean and fierce as Big Mama's looks. They drove to Stoller's home nearby, Stoller started playing his upright piano, Leiber started "singing and shouting", and 10 minutes later they were on the road back to Johnny Otis's place with "Hound Dog". It was a Southern blues-style number, the tale of a woman throwing a gigolo out of her house and her life: "You ain't nothing but a hound dog / Quit snooping round my door / You can wag your tail / But I ain't gonna feed you no more."

The term "hound dog" was a euphemism, says Stoller, "for something at the time unrecordable." Was the word "gigolo" really taboo then, I ask? "Actually," says Stoller, "the word would have been something like 'motherfucker'."

When it was time to put the song on tape, Johnny Otis's drummer wasn't up to scratch. Otis took over on drums himself, and Leiber and Stoller took over the session. By accident, they found themselves producing their first record. Stoller: "We asked Big Mama to growl it. She said, 'Don't be telling me how to sing no song'." But growl it she did: "You told me you was high class / But I can see through that / And daddy I know / You ain't no cool cat."

"The first take was incredible. The second was even better," says Stoller, and anyone who has heard the record will concur. The band swishes away, and Thornton's huge, hollering voice rips through it, stretching and accenting notes every which way. Before breaking into barks and howls at the end, the protagonist throws off the metaphor to reveal her real grievance: "You made me feel so blue / You made me weep and moan / You ain't looking for a woman / All you looking for is a home."

Thornton walked "Hound Dog" (The Original Hound Dog, Ace 1990) to the top of the rhythm'n'blues chart, and the copycats were just around the corner. Little Esther followed Big Mama with a cool shuffle (Better Beware, Charlie 1990). Ron Smith, a schoolfriend of Presley's, says he remembers Elvis singing along to a version by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys (Intro 1953). According to another schoolmate, the favourite r'n'b song of the boy-who-would-be-King was "Bear Cat (the Answer to Hound Dog)" (Sun, 1953) by Rufus Thomas, a Memphis DJ and a hero of Presley's. This record was the first hit of the rising Sun label: "You ain't nothing but a bear cat / Snooping round my door / You can purr, pretty kitty / But I ain't gonna feed you no more." It was written by Sam Phillips as a blatant cash-in: so blatant that Dan Robey of Peacock Records sued him for infringement of copyright.

Freddie Bell and the Bellboys covered "Hound Dog" in 1955, and added the almost parodic line: "You ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine" (Teen 1955). They played it in the spring of 1956 while working as a lounge act in Las Vegas. Also in Vegas at the time was Elvis Presley. He picked up the song from them, and one night belted it out unrehearsed while his band raced to keep up.

It was recorded at the RCA Studios in New York on 2 July 1956. At the same session Presley cut "Any Way You Want Me" and "Don't Be Cruel", which was released on the flip side of "Hound Dog" (RCA 1956). (In the run-up to the centenary of the jukebox in 1991, US newspapers noted that this double whammy made the disc the most popular jukebox selection ever.) Considering the rough-and-tumble velocity of "Hound Dog", it would be nice to say it was captured in a couple of takes, like the original. In fact, the recording we hear is take 31.

Leiber wasn't impressed: "That version of the lyric didn't make any sense. At the time I thought Elvis's version was a little bit nervous, a bit too fast. It was not really a downhome, funky, regional blues-type version. Big Mama's was a buck dance and Elvis's was sort of a folk-rock skiffle. I wasn't crazy about it when I heard it. Over the years," he laughs, "I grew to appreciate it."

In listing his reservations, Leiber identifies exactly what it is that makes Presley's version a rock'n'roll classic. It is fast, it is nervous. The lyric - now containing only three sentences, and no rhymes - does not make sense, unless we are to imagine that Presley has spent a long and frustrating day at a canine obedience class. But that's the point. The gigolo scenario has become a tirade of unfocused aggression, of all- purpose, sneering rebellion. The words which are snarled and smirked and grunted and shrugged by Presley have no more meaning than, say, "Tutti Frutti, oh rooti", but they do have more ... attitude. And behind them is the adrenaline of DJ Fontana's rattling, clattering snare, those exuberant handclaps, Bill Black's primal C-E-G bass pushing ahead of the beat, while Scotty Moore's licks twist around it. And for the first time on a Presley recording, the (admittedly dated) backing vocals of all four of the Jordanaires. No regional blues had ever rocked like this.

Since then, there has been an on-going dogfight between Presley's reading and Thornton's. Little Richard's dog is "barking all the time" (Greatest Hits, Babylon), but the verse about the "cool cat" is in there. (And incidentally, how big is Little Richard in relation to Big Mama and Little Esther?) Albert King (Blues for Elvis, Stax 1991) mystifyingly changes allegiance mid-verse: "You said you was high class, but I can see through that / You ain't never caught a rabbit, you ain't no friend of mine." Blues purist Eric Clapton bases his recording (Journeyman, Reprise 1989) on Thornton's, which is one reason why his "Hound Dog" is Mike Stoller's favourite, bar the original.

But ultimately, if Mama is Big, Elvis is bigger, and most "Hound Dog"s take the archetypal rockabilly sound as a starting point. Sha-Na-Na pastiche it on the Grease soundtrack (RSO 1978); the robotic Residents deconstruct it on The King and Eye (Torso 1989); and Dread Zeppelin (Un-Led-Ed, IRS 1990) simply take the mickey, using a reggaefied verse to round off their "Black Dog". Jimi Hendrix - whose dog is not crying or barking but scratching - unleashes a "Crosstown Traffic" riff (Radio One, Castle 1989), but he seriously overdoes the doggy noises. (This is the curse of "Hound Dog". However distinctive their interpretations may be, few bands can resist adding a few woofs to the mix.) John Lennon is fairly downhome and funky on Live in New York City (Columbia, 1986). But during the last verse he shouts, "Elvis, I love you," so Big Mama can take no credit there.

It has been up to the song's composers to wrest it back from the Elvis impersonators. When I spoke to Leiber and Stoller, they had just finished mixing the cast album of their Broadway musical, Smokey Joe's Cafe. "A girl named B J Thomas is singing 'Hound Dog', and it's stopping the show," said Leiber. "Her version is as close as you can get to Big Mama's."

! A longer version of this article appears in the new paperback edition of 'Lives of the Great Songs', edited by Tim de Lisle (Penguin, pounds 6.99, published on Thursday).

! COMPETITION: we have 20 copies of 'Lives of the Great Songs' to give away to 'IoS' readers. To stand a chance of winning one, simply tell us the titles of 10 other dog-related hits. Answers, on a postcard please, to: HOUND DOG, Arts Desk, Independent on Sunday, 1 Canada Sq, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL. Usual competition rules apply, and the editor's decision is final. The closing date for entries is Monday 6 November.

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