Rolling Stones unreleased: Hound Dog (live 1978)
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Written by: Leiber/Stoller
Recorded: Mid-South Coliseum, Memphis, TN, June 28 1978
One of the songs that is forever tied to the rise of rock & roll is Elvis Presley’s version of “Hound Dog.” Originally written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller for rhythm & blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, the tune in its original incarnation was a modified rhumba, fueled on the original recording by an extended guitar solo from Pete Lewis. The popularity of Big Mama’s version inspired an answer record on Sun by Rufus Thomas, “Bear Cat,” sounding close enough to the original to inspire a lawsuit. Reportedly, Elvis got his inspiration to cover the song when he saw Freddie Bell & the Bellboys doing it in Las Vegas on an early ill-fated tour in 1956. But what Elvis did with it was entirely new and different; the beat was modified to a driving rock & roll rhythm with off-time handclaps provided by his backing singers, the Jordanaires.
The guitar breaks were now kept to two 12-bar solo bursts, played effectively by Scotty Moore and, above all, the song was infused with Presley’s manic vocal energy. The song blew the rock & roll movement through the roof, becoming a lightning rod for critics of the music as well as a rallying cry for the nation’s youth movement. It’s been successfully covered by Jerry Lee Lewis and others over the years, but nothing beats Presley’s version, as emblematic a song from the ’50s as you’re likely to come across.
“Hound Dog” was originally recorded in a blues style by Big Mama Thornton in 1953. Her version was a #1 R&B hit and by far her biggest success. Like many blues musicians, she never made much money, but was a big influence on many singers who did. In 1968, Janis Joplin recorded a song Thornton wrote called “Ball and Chain,” which appeared on several Joplin compilation albums after she died in 1970.
Elvis’ version of this song is based on how he heard it performed by a Texas group called Freddie Bell and The Bell Boys, who released the song on the Teen label in 1955. In April 1956, Elvis was booked for two weeks at The New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. One night, Elvis and his band explored the Vegas strip and landed at the Sahara, where Freddie Bell and The Bell Boys were performing in the lounge. When they performed their comedic version of “Hound Dog,” Elvis was impressed and decided to do his own in a similar vein.
Elvis used the same lyrics, which differed from the Big Mama Thornton original. In this approach to the song, Elvis is acting disappointed with his lover and repeating the lyrics, “Well, they said you was high-classed, but that was just a lie” six times. In Thornton’s original, she sings the line twice as “You told me you was high class, but I can see through that.”
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