Elvis’s ‘Hound Dog’ wasn’t stolen from Big Mama Thornton, says the song’s co-writer Mike Stoller

The track was actually inspired by another group’s version recorded later says Stoller

40 years on: Remembering Elvis Presley

“Hound Dog” co-writer Mike Stoller has refuted claims that Elvis Presley’s version of the classic rock’n’roll song was stolen from Big Mama Thornton. 

In an interview with Brain Hiatt for Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, Stoller, 89, told the complicated story of “Hound Dog” and suggested that Presley’s version was actually inspired by another group’s rendition of the song.

“Hound Dog”, was originally written by Stoller and his writing partner Jerry Leiber (who died in 2011). It was recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1952 and released by Presley four years later.

Although Presley knew about Thornton’s version, his rendition of “Hound Dog”, however, was based on a version recorded by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, Stoller said.

Their version, released in 1955, had a more simplified chord structure and included alternate lyrics which made the song about a dog, not a man.

When asked if he thought Presley had stolen the song from Thornton, Stoller said “no” and explained that Presley “was doing it pretty much the way they [Freddie Bell and the Bellboys] had written the song and it seemed to be about a dog”.

Some critics have suggested over the years that the problem stems not from the track being stolen, but from the public’s willingness to embrace a song when performed by a white man and not by a Black woman.

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, currently in the cinemas, does include blues singer Thornton (played by Shonka Dukureh), but Stoller and Leiber were left out of the film.

“I didn’t expect anything, so therefore, I was not disappointed in that regard” said Stoller.

He added that he was happy Thornton “was depicted” in the film and that their original rendition (as opposed to the modified version) of “Hound Dog” was performed: “It’s a song that a woman sings to a man, not a man to a dog!” he laughed.

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The writing pair, who went on to write a series of classic songs, including “Stand by Me” for Ben E. King and “Jailhouse Rock”, “King Creole” for Presley, originally wrote “Hound Dog” as teenagers within “15 minutes” of seeing Thornton sing. 

Speaking of the first time he saw her perform, Stoller said: “I don’t remember exactly what the song was, but she knocked us out.”

Thornton’s “Hound Dog” was also a big hit in 1953, but the writing pair didn’t get any compensation, and neither did Thornton.

The song’s writing credits weren’t even listed correctly, with Stoller saying: “I was very upset with what happened.”

The pair did eventually get royalties from “Hound Dog” after Presley’s version became a smash hit, but Thornton was left without financial reward.

In the podcast, Hiatt said that Thornton’s lack of recoginton was the tragic result of “systematic racism” and “a business that was quite literally full of theivary”.

Stoller agreed: “That’s true of not only Big Mama, but of many black performers and songwriters.”

Stoller said he preferred Thornton’s “Hound Dog”, commenting that Presley’s version “didn’t have the groove that Big Mama’s record had, which was fantastic”.

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