Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” (1956) is one of the biggest and most instantly recognizable pop songs in history. It’s a song so closely associated with the King of Rock and Roll, in fact, that many may mistakenly assume that it was a Presley original. In fact, the story of the song that gave Elvis his longest-running #1 hit (11 weeks) in the summer of 1956 began four years earlier, when “Hound Dog” was recorded for the very first time by the rhythm-and-blues singer Ellie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in Los Angeles, California.
Big Mama Thornton was a native of Montgomery, Alabama, who came of age on the R&B circuit in the 1940s after starting her professional career in 1941 at the age of 14. In 1951, she signed her first record contract with Peacock Records and was soon paired with another of its artists, bandleader Johnny Otis, who brought Thornton out to join his band in California. It was there, in late 1952, that Otis asked two young songwriters on the Los Angeles music scene if they would write something especially for Thornton. Those songwriters were Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who would go on to have an enormous impact on R&B and early rock and roll through their work with groups like the Coasters and the Drifters. But hits like “Yakkity Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Stand By Me,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Love Potion No. 9″ were still ahead of Lieber and Stoller when they did what Otis asked and came back to him with a 12-bar country blues tune called “Hound Dog.”
On this day in 1953, Big Mama Thornton and the Johnny Otis Band recorded “Hound Dog” and turned it into a smash hit on the R&B charts, where it stayed at #1 for seven weeks. It wasn’t Thornton’s recording, however, that inspired Elvis to record “Hound Dog” three years later. Presley’s inspiration came from a rewrite by a singer named Freddie Bell, who changed the original lyrics to include the now-familiar “Cryin’ all the time” and “You ain’t never caught a rabbit.” During his first Las Vegas engagement in the spring of 1956, Elvis Presley heard Freddie Bell and the Bellboys performing the reworked “Hound Dog” and added it to his repertoire almost immediately.