The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in 25 Songs: Elvis Presley – "Hound Dog"

Written by Hunter Schwarz on . Posted in Music

The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll is 17 Track’s attempt to squeeze more than sixty years of music onto a mixtape.There are many ways to tell a story, and the story of rock ‘n’ roll is one that has been told many times in many ways. It’s messy, complicated and difficult to follow in some parts, and the entire history of it could fill volumes. But what if you didn’t have volumes? What if you only had a blank CD-R and you had to tell the story through songs? Each song in this list represents a moment or movement in the development of popular music. It’s not a list of the best, most important or most influential songs, it’s exactly what it professes to be – a history.

The third song, Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” tells the story of rock ‘n’ roll getting it’s first true star who revolutionized rock forever.

Song 3: “Hound Dog”

Elvis Presley

RCA Records

Writers: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

Producer: Steve Sholes

Released: July 13, 1956

Newly minted rock star Elvis Presley took the stage on the Steve Allen Show July 1, 1956, uncharacteristically dressed in a tailed tuxedo to perform his upcoming single, “Hound Dog.” In what is now numbered among his most iconic performances, Elvis sang the song to a basset hound wearing a top hat on a platform in front of him. Singing  the song literally – to a dog – wasn’t Elvis’ idea, however (“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog” was a colloquialism for “You ain’t nothin’ but a motherf*****” –  it really wasn’t about a dog), it was the show’s host. Elvis was actually upset about it.

Host Steve Allen hoped to keep the new poster boy for rock ‘n’ roll on a short leash. Only a month earlier, Elvis had shocked the nation with a “lewd” performance of the song on the rival Milton Berle Show.

Elvis’ performance on Berle’s show was his first televised performance of “Hound Dog” and one of his most controversial. He ripped through the majority of the song before slowing down at the end. The slowed down, suggestive finale featured hip thrusting that drove the females in the audience wild. The girls parents, and parents across the nation, however, weren’t as excited about it. The performance earned Elvis the nickname “Elvis the pelvis” and drew the wrath of critics.

Although Allen was no fan of rock ‘n’ roll, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to book Elvis on his show. The rising star was ratings gold. When he performed on Berle’s show

for example, an astonishing 40,000,000 people tuned in. Capturing an audience that large was a big incentive for Allen, but he wasn’t about to face the backlash Berle did.

“When I booked Elvis, I naturally had no interest in just presenting him vaudeville-style and letting him do his spot as he might in concert,” Allen said. “We certainly didn’t inhibit Elvis’ then-notorious pelvic gyrations, but I think the fact that he had on formal evening attire made him, purely on his own, slightly alter his presentation.”

Nervous giggles revealed Elvis’ embarrassment as he sang the song, which ended up being directed more to the dog than to the audience, but he was a good sport about it, hugging the dog at the end. Elvis wasn’t nearly as raw or sensual as he was on Berle’s show, and the camera never cut to shrieking teenage girls this time around, but it didn’t matter. The next day, the Tupelo, Mississippi born singer finally recorded the song at RCA studio, and a month later, the song topped the Billboard charts for an incredible 11 weeks. It was the biggest single of Presley’s 17 No. 1 hits, and Billboard’s longest chart topper for more than three decades.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Rock ‘n’ roll had made great strides in the year since Bill Haley and his Comets incited riots with “Rock Around the Clock.” Only a few months before Elvis crash landed on the American consciousness, Chuck Berry, an African-American singer, went as high as No. 5 with “Maybellene.” Young people across the country were already identifying with, listening to and purchasing rock ‘n’ roll records without regard to race, but Elvis Presley was the rocket fuel to take the genre to levels of cultural ubiquity and importance that were unthinkable only a few short years before.

Elvis recorded his first song at the age of 18 at Sam Phillip’s Studio in Memphis. The same Sam Phillip’s who recorded Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cat’s “Rocket 88″ let paying customers record a two-sided vinyl record for $3.98.

Elvis said the songs were for his mother, but considering there were a number of cheaper places he could have recorded, it seems that he was hoping to impress Phillips. Unfortunatley, Phillips wasn’t in the day Elvis came in. Instead, Marion Keisker, the secretary, helped him record two songs.

“Who do you sound like?” Marion asked the boy.

“I don’t sound like nobody,” he responded.

That day, Elvis recorded “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heataches Begin.” Marion took note of the young man, writing down his name, neighbor’s phone number and the words “Elvis Pressley [sic]. Good ballad singer. Hold.” Marion played Sam the recordings Elvis made, but he wasn’t overly impressed.

Luckily, Elvis got another shot months later. Sam needed a demo for the song “Without You” recorded, and his secretary suggested Elvis, “the kid with the sideburns.” Elvis got to the studio as soon as he could after receiving the call, decked out in a pink suit and whites shoes. He recorded the demo, but again, Sam wasn’t blown away with any of his takes.

It wasn’t until Presley was fooling around in the studio playing “That’s All Right Mama” that caught the producer’s attention.

Sam had always said “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars,” and finally, he was hearing what he had been looking for all these years.

Sam sent the record to several radio stations in town, and disc jockey Dewey Phillips, a known tastemaker who is credited with popularizing rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis, spun it over a dozen times the first night alone. Listeners were convinced the singer was African-American. Most didn’t find out he was white until an-on air interview with the DJ where he said he had gone to Humes High, the white school he graduated from a year before Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka outlawed segregation.

Elvis quickly gained a regional following and began playing gigs around the South. He captured the attention of promoter Colonel Tom Parker (The title “Colonel” was an honorary one bestowed on him by the governor of Louisiana, but he insisted to be called by it) who booked him shows across the country and secured him a recording contract with RCA in 1955. RCA spent an unheard of $40,000 to buy off Presley’s Sun contract. With the money, Phillips averted bankruptcy and was able to support other artists on his roster including legends in the making like Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.

The untested singer initially disappointed RCA executives when he recorded “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first single for them. Released early in 1956, the song was unlike anything he had recorded before, but it ended up becoming a hit – a big one. “Heartbreak Hotel” became Elvis’ first million-seller and his first No. 1.  By the middle of the year, Elvis was responsible for more than half of RCA’s income.

With the success of “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis blew up. He embarked on a whirlwind nationwide tour, began performing on television shows and landed a movie contract with Paramount Pictures. While nearly every project he did was a success, his two-week run at Las Vegas’ New Frontier Hotel was not. Elvis would eventually become a staple of Sin City entertainment in the twilight of his career, but his first performances were met with indifference by the hotel’s audience more used to the likes of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. Newsweek said his performance was “like a jug of corn liquor at a champagne party.”

While Elvis’ Las Vegas stint wasn’t as fruitful as Parker would have liked, it did lead to “Hound Dog.”

The song was written by R&B songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller for Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, the daughter of a Montgomery, Alabama minister. “Big Mama” moved to Houston to pursue a singing career and was eventually signed with Peacock Records where “Hound Dog” became her first hit in 1953. “Big Mama” sang the song with a growl set to the back beat of hand claps, and took it to the top of the R&B charts. Almost immediately, country groups began covering the song.

Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, a Philadelphia band, performed the song on their nationwide tour, which included shows at the Sand’s Hotel Silver Queen Bar in Las Vegas that coincided with Elvis’ two-week residency. Elvis was always looking for R&B crossover songs to perform, and was impressed with Freddie Bell and the Bellboys’ version. Soon, he added it to his set list, often closing shows with the song.

Elvis’ version resembled Freddie Bell and the Bellboys more than “Big Mama” Thornton’s, with some lyrics changed to be less suggestive. “Snoopin’ ’round my door” became “cryin’ all the time” and the bit about never having caught a rabbit replaced “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more.”

But as sanitized as Elvis made his performances, from changing lyrics to singing in a tuxedo, it failed to appease his critics. The New York Times said he had “no discernible singing ability” and the New York Herald Tribune said he was “unspeakably untalented and vulgar.” Following two nights of shows in San Diego, the police chief warned Elvis he would be jailed for disorderly conduct if he ever performed in the same “vulgar” way in the city again.

But the bad press probably did more to fan the flames of Elvis’ popularity than anything. He was a rebel. The more adults tried to stop him, the more kids wanted to hear him. As Bono put it, he was “a trucker-dandy white boy who must have risked his hide to act so black and dress so gay … This was punk rock. This was revolt.”

Elvis was pioneered the modern rock star. He blurred the lines of racial tension, pushed the boundaries of sexual expression and opened the doors of rock ‘n’ roll for his contemporaries and the generations of predecessors that followed. The widespread availability of television allowed Elvis to be beamed in to millions of televisions across the country.

Thanks to Elvis’ televised performances “Hound Dog” before even recording the song, demand had built by the time he went into RCA’s New York Studio the day after being embarrassed on Steve Allen’s show. Elvis and his band were perfectionists while recording the track, finally nailing it after more than 31 takes.

Elvis’ recording was roaring, rebellious and captured the spirit and independence of rock ‘n’ roll fighting tirelessly against the establishment trying to straight jacket it – or put it in a tuxedo.

Previously: Song 1: Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats – “Rocket 88″

Song 2: Bill Haley and the Comets – “Rock Around the Clock”

Bibliography:

Bono. The 100 Greatest Artists of all Time. New York: Rolling Stone, 2011.

Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits. New York: Billboard Books, 2003.

Clayton, Marie. Elvis Unseen Archives. Bath: Parragon Publishing, 2002.

Schrembs, Jeff. “Elvis Presleys’ TV appearance on the Steve Allen Show.” Elvis Presley expert blog. June 3, 2011. http://elvispresleyexpert.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/elvis-presleys-tv-appearance-on-the-steve-allen-show-by-jeff-schrembs/

The Sun Sessions CD liner notes. RCA, 1990.

Troedson, David. “Elvis Presleys’ national TV apperances in the 1950s.” Elvis Australia. April 16, 2011. http://www.elvis.com.au/presley/elvis_presleys_national_tv_appearances_in_the_1950s.shtml

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