The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #13: Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton, covered by Elvis Presley (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #13: Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton.

So, a funny thing happened on the way to writing this post. I was minding my own business, conducting my research into the song, “Hound Dog”, which I assumed was an Elvis Presley song and then, what I really discovered was that I didn’t actually know anything about this song at all! The story behind “Hound Dog” is so filled with twists and turns and plot developments that I think my biggest challenge today is going to be finding room to get it all down without having written a book! Suffice to say, “Hound Dog” is not an Elvis song! It is not about a dog! It was a song subject to countless legal battles over copyright infringement! And finally, it was originally sung by a lady who rivalled Aretha Franklin, herself, for singing prowess yet, she died a virtual unknown in the annals of music history. That lady’s name was “Big Mama” Thornton. So, let’s get this twisted, tangled sorrowful tale under way. Here is the story of a song called, “Hound Dog”.

The song, “Hound Dog” was written by two famous songwriters named Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller when they were just teenagers. Leiber and Stoller wrote some of the most famous songs of all-time including, “Jailhouse Rock” and “Loving You” by Elvis, “Yakety Yak” by The Coasters, “On Broadway” and “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King and over 70 other songs that charted in the US. They were inducted into The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in the Songwriters Category in 1987. “Hound Dog” was one of their very first songs to be written and recorded. Because of their young age at the time, the lessons learned through the publication and recording process helped to set the stage for legal ownership of musical content and the subsequent royalty rates that helped songwriters make their living. But, at the time, none of those copyright procedures and protections existed which went a long way into making the story of “Hound Dog” so complex.

The original version of the lyrics for “Hound Dog” were written for a black woman to sing. The song was written to be a bawdy song about a gigolo ( a “hound dog”) who was trying to convince his black female mark to take care of him… set him up in a life of leisure, if you will. She, in turn, replies that she is aware of what he is trying to trick her into doing and she is having none of it and wants him to leave. The black woman that Leiber and Stoller presented “Hound Dog” to was a lady known as “Big Mama” Thornton. There are so many legal aspects to the story of “Hound Dog” that it is easy to overlook the part that Big Mama Thornton played but, in reality, her story is arguably the most important one of all.

“Big Mama” Thornton was a Blues singer who was cut from the very same cloth as was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. *(you can read all about Sister Rosetta Tharpe here). “Big Mama” Thornton was a strong, powerful woman who toured with a band that included a guitarist named Buddy Guy, who would go on to become one of the most legendary Blues guitarists of all-time. But, his first gig was touring with “Big Mama” Thornton. Because of her powerful presence, Leiber and Stoller…..two white, skinny, Jewish teenagers……thought she would be the perfect singer for their song. At first, she sang “Hound Dog” as a smouldering Blues song but, to their credit, Leiber and Stoller were not intimidated by her and they stood their ground and insisted that she sing the song like she was howling. “Big Mama” reluctantly agreed to try it their way and, as they say, the rest is history. Her howling rendition of a song about sex and about a woman standing her ground, set the music world on fire. When it was released under her name, “Hound Dog” by “Big Mama” Thornton went to #1 on the R&B charts and stayed there for eight weeks! The song was one of several hits she had under her own name……the next famous being “Ball and Chain”, made famous when covered by Janis Joplin. If the story of the song was that she had a hit with it and then Elvis covered it later then, that would be a relatively simple story but, that is not the end of the story at all. Hang on……we are only just beginning.

Leiber and Stoller wrote the original lyrics to “Hound Dog” at a time when copyright protection really didn’t exist. It was a time of the wild west when it came to songs and musical structures. As soon as someone released a hit, there would be imitators and copy cats springing up out of the woodwork in no time flat. The legal troubles for Leiber and Stoller regarding “Hound Dog” started as soon as they gave the song to “Big Mama” Thornton. When she read the lyrics handed to her, she agreed to sing most of the song the way it was but, requested a few changes along the way that, based on her own experiences as a black woman, that rang truer if she doctored the lyrics a tad. So, she did. In her mind and that of her manager, the slight changes she made meant that now, “Hound Dog”, as sung by “Big Mama” Thornton was now, also, written by her as well. Because she and her management team gave themselves a songwriting credit, it meant that sales of her version of the song would generate royalty revenue for them and, by doing so, cut down on the share that went to Leiber and Stoller. So, this is where legal issue #1 started.

So, as mentioned, there were plenty of copycat artists out there. When “Hound Dog” by “Big Mama” Thornton was reigning supreme atop the R&B charts, a new version of “Hound Dog” came out by a group named Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. They were not black women so, they changed the lyrics to reflect the fact that men were now singing this song called, “Hound Dog”. In order to do so, they changed the whole concept of the song from one that was sexually-charged to one that was simply about a dog chasing rabbits. It was this version of “Hound Dog” that Elvis covered. However, before we get to that, because Freddy Bell and the Bellboys created their own lyrics, they released their version as being written by them thus giving themselves a songwriting credit and the royalty revenue that came with it. Leiber and Stoller were not given any songwriting credit on this version of “Hound Dog” which, as you can imagine, created legal issue #2 for the song, “Hound Dog”. This brings us to Elvis.

As you should all be aware by now, Elvis always demanded a full 50% songwriting share of any song that he intended to cover. Since Elvis was covering a version of the song that was, in reality, an unauthorized copy of the original song he was, in fact, not entitled to the songwriting credit he coerced out of Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. But, as we know, that didn’t stop him from recording his own version of “Hound Dog”. This became legal issue #3 but, it wasn’t the end of other legal issues and issues of another sort for Elvis.

“Hound Dog” was one of Elvis’ first big hits. It was, also, one of the first songs that the American public saw him perform on TV. It was after those initial performances that Elvis was given the nickname, “Elvis the Pelvis” for the amount of gyrations he used his hips to create while singing this song. At this stage of his career, he was just starting out and was viewed by established singers such as Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, as being wet behind the ears. They both spoke out against the style of music Elvis was promoting. They called it vulgar and nothing but noise. As Elvis began appearing on television to promote himself and his music, the hosts of the shows he appeared on all tried various means to restrict how Elvis was shown on screen. On one show, the Tonight Show as hosted then, by Steve Allen, who held Rock n’ Roll music in contempt, he humiliated Elvis by presenting him with an autographed roll of toilet paper (I kid you not) at the end of his performance. Elvis, who wore a tuxedo for this special appearance, was furious. The very next day, he re-recorded “Hound Dog” in his own style, as opposed to merely copying Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. His new rendition was angry and powerful and energetic and more in keeping with the version we know from Elvis today. As we know, the Elvis Presley version of “Hound Dog” went straight to #1 and stayed there for multiple weeks. This was merely the beginning of a career that helped make Elvis the biggest selling singer of all-time in music history.

But, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller hated the Elvis version. In their minds, a song about a dog chasing rabbits made no sense; especially, coming from the powerful, female perspective as sung by “Big Mama” Thornton. As the litigation involving this song unfolded, it became clear that Elvis most certainly knew that the song belonged to “Big Mama” Thornton but, he opted to sing the version about dogs and rabbits, anyway. That was his choice, of course but, critics say that it was the beginning of a pattern with Elvis that saw him appropriate songs by black artists in ways that denied them credit in the public eye, as well as, the financial benefits that should have come with Elvis lending his weight to their work. That criticism has stayed with Elvis since that time. *(For proof, read the post about the song, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, where they address Elvis by name, along with this topic. You can listen to the song here).

Eventually, the copyright issues were ironed out in court. Leiber and Stoller were given their rightful credit on all versions of the song by everyone. The funny thing about that was that as the time of the first verdict in this case that spawned multiple trials, Leiber and Stoller, were legally minors and had to have their mothers sign all documents on their behalf. “Big Mama” Thornton was allowed to keep her songwriting credit but had to take a reduced share because Leiber and Stoller were given the main credit and royalty rate. “Big Mama” Thornton received nothing at all from any of the cover versions that followed her success. Leiber and Stoller were given a small share of the Elvis Presley recording which, as you can imagine, set them up for life and, as well, because of how agreeable they were with Elvis during his portion of the trial, they were given access to his company and ended up writing other songs with him, as noted at the top of this post.

For me, I always viewed “Hound Dog” as an Elvis song. Most peopled, I suppose. But, it is not an Elvis song. It is a “Big Mama” Thornton song. I feel that it is important to state that. Far too many black artists have had their work taken from them by white artists who, in turn, benefited from a society that was set up to favour whites over blacks. All of it was unfair and unjust. If this post sheds even a sliver of light on this situation and changes a few minds then, it will have served its purpose. The real thing about it is that “Big Mama” Thornton was an exceptional singer. Wow! What a presence! I had never heard her sing until I did the research for this post. But, when I did listen to her, as you will all do in a few moments, I was completely in awe. If you think “Lady Soul”, Aretha Franklin can sing, wait until you get a load of “Big Mama” Thornton. I am willing to place a fairly hefty wager that “Big Mama” Thornton was, in fact, one of Aretha Franklin’s role models starting out. Their singing styles are quite similar. In any case, I am going to play for you the video of “Big Mama” Thornton singing “Hound Dog” the way it was originally intended for it to be sung. Note the stylings of Buddy Guy, in the background, on guitar. There are many who say that, along with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the combination of “Big Mama” Thornton’s voice, with Buddy Guy’s smooth guitar work, was the real beginning of Rock n’ Roll as we know it to be today.

So, without further delay, here is “Hound Dog”, as written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and performed by “Big Mama” Thornton and Buddy Guy. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Hound Dog” by “Big Mama” Thornton, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Ball and Chain” by “Big Mama” Thornton, can be found here.

The link to the official website for “Big Mama” Thornton, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Buddy Guy, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Hound Dog”, as covered by Elvis Presley, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Elvis Presley, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

3 thoughts on “The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #13: Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton, covered by Elvis Presley (RS)”

  1. Wow, that is quite a convoluted legal background story!

    I knew “Hound Dog” had been written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. I also was aware of the amazing rendition by Big Mama Thornton – gotta love that name. And I knew Elvis scored a big hit with “Hound Dog,” but I had no idea about all the legal stuff.

    This story is a great illustration how shady the music business can be!

    Liked by 1 person

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