When Willie Mae Thornton left home to tour the Southern States of the USA as a singer in the Hot Harlem Revue in 1941 she was just 14. Just like Big Joe Turner, who’d started his career only a couple of years before (ABON 0138), she could shout the Blues louder than most of her rivals, who were twice her age. And also like Big Joe Turner, even as a teenager, she had the physique to gain access to the bars, clubs and theatres of the South years before she should legally have been allowed to.
By the beginning of the 1950s, although she was still only 24, she had already been on the stage for 10 years and plain Willie Mae had blossomed into Big Mama Thornton. At 20 stone and with a voice that had become even more ferocious over the years, she was an imposing and slightly intimidating figure.
At least that’s what two new-kid-on-the-block teenage writers by the names of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller thought when they were given one of their first big breaks and were asked to write some songs for her. One of the resulting songs was ‘Hound Dog’, which they presented to Big Mama personally, scribbled on the back of an old paper bag.
Big Mama recorded it in late 1952. Lieber and Stoller distrusted third party producers because they felt they didn’t understand how their songs were meant to sound. So they produced it themselves to ensure it sounded exactly as they intended it to. Sounding exactly as the boys wished it to - although it’s difficult to see the two 19-year olds over-ruling Big Mama too often if there were disagreements in the studio - it was released as a single in March 1953. And promptly sold over two million copies. That might have been it except…
One night in early 1956, Elvis and his band happened to catch an act called Freddie Bell And The Bellboys performing in a club in Las Vegas. One of the songs they included in their set was their own version of ‘Hound Dog’.
With slightly revised lyrics and a straighter Rock’n'Roll beat than Big Mama’s Rhythmy Blues original their version was performed almost as an over-the-top comedy routine.
Elvis loved the arrangement, the performance and the drama that Freddie And The Bellboys had injected into the song. From that moment on Elvis seemed to add a little humour and theatrical over-the-topness into all his recordings. And it started with his own recorded pf ‘Hound dog’ using Freddie Bell’s lyrical variations rather than Lieber and Stoller’s original draft. And, as they say, the rest is history.
A slightly strange history though when you think about it, because although Freddie changed several of the lines for his male singer version, he didn’t tamper with the title. And nor did Elvis who forever sang Hound Dog when maybe he should really have been singing Hound Bitch.
Recorded 1952 but not released until March 1953.
Available on many compilations but one of the best is ‘Hound Dog – The Peacock Recordings’: Amazon