Big Mama Thornton
Writer(s): Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller (see lyrics here)
First Charted: March 28, 1953
Peak: 17 RB, 6 DF (Click for codes to charts.)
Sales (in millions): --
Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 10.6 video, 26.18 streaming
Released: July 13, 1956
First Charted: July 27, 1956
Peak: 111 US, 4 HP, 14 CB, 2 HR, 16 RB, 2 UK, 17 AU (Click for codes to charts.)
Sales (in millions): 8.0 US, 0.2 UK, 10.0 world (includes US + UK)
Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 68.68 video, 143.63 streaming
Awards (Big Mama Thornton):
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Awards (Elvis Presley):
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About the Song:
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the writers of “Hound Dog,” became the most successful songwriters of the 1950s. TB “Hound Dog” was a country-blues song they wrote at the request of bandleader Johnny Otis, who was working with blues belter Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, a black woman who weighed in around three hundred pounds. These two white, Jewish teenagers “correctly surmised that a song in which she lambasted her cheating man in comically outlandish terms as a mangy dog snooping around the door was well-suited to her style.” SS “Her gritty, raucous, sometimes hilarious performance made it an R&B classic” SS that topped the R&B charts for 7 weeks.
At least six versions and a couple of parodies were released before Elvis stumbled across it. TB It shouldn’t have worked considering the original perspective of the song, but “Elvis Presley not only made it work (albeit with changes in the lyrics that he only partially remembered from the original, and a modified melody)” SS but made it “a massive international smash.” TB
Elvis had a stint at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas in April 1956. One night he caught a performance of Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. They performed “Hound Dog,” “livening the tempo and coming up with some new lyrics.” DM Elvis was enamored with their “show-stopping arrangement” SS of “Hound Dog” and decided to incorporate it into his own act. Guitarist Scotty Moore said, “We were just looking on it as comic relief, if you will, just another number to do onstage.” TB
In fact, Presley performed it on national television a couple of times before even recording it. TB The first appearance was on The Milton Berle Show on June 5, 1956. 40 million people saw Elvis’ take on “Hound Dog,” complete with controversial gyrations that “caused the nationwide uproar over his ‘lewdness.’” DM Critics called him “Elvis the Pelvis” and said the song was a showcase for his “caterwauling voice and nonsense lyrics.” WK
Interestingly, Leiber and Stoller initially “hated his light-hearted approach to their song.” SS Stoller said, “It just sounded terribly nervous, too fast, too white. But you know, after it sold seven or eight million records, it started to sound better.” TC In fact, Leiber and Stoller went on to work with Elvis on the 1957 Jailhouse soundtrack.
With all the attention, he was tapped to perform on The Steve Allen Show for July 1. Allen wasn’t a great fan of rock ‘n’ roll and demanded that Elvis wear a tuxedo. Elvis also had to sing to a top-hat-wearing basset hound. Allen claimed that he wasn’t out to halt Elvis’ presentation style, but the combination of formal wear and singing to a dog reigned in his performance. However, it made for one of The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s most memorable appearances, even if it wasn’t his best.
The following day, Elvis entered the RCA studios in New York City to record the song. “Hound Dog” was originally intended as the B-side for “Don’t Be Cruel,” another song from the session. After the single’s release, it became clear that RCA had two hits on their hands and it became billed as a double A-sided single. The pair of songs became Elvis’ best-selling single and the first single in history to top Billboard magazine’s pop, country, and R&B charts. WK The pair of songs jointly spent 11 weeks atop the pop chart, making it the longest-reigning #1 of the rock era until 1992’s “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men spent 13 weeks at the pinnacle.
First posted 7/1/2011; last updated 3/30/2023.