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Meaning

Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" is one of the most celebrated songs of all time, but let's face it, it's a pretty ridiculous song. For all the song's silliness, though, there's a not-so-tame edge to the song's back story. As co-writer Jerry Lieber admitted decades later, the song's most famous line was "just code for 'You ain't nothing but a m***** f*****'" ("The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time," Rolling Stone, 9 December 2004, 82).

Elvis Presley made the song famous, but it wasn't actually written for him. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller gave the song to Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton in 1952. Thornton, a big-voiced R&B artist, was also a songwriter herself. Her "Ball and Chain" would eventually make its way into Janis Joplin's legendary repertoire, but Thornton's first hit was "Hound Dog," recorded under the Peacock label in 1952. 

Leiber and Stoller would also go on to build an impressive list of credits, including the monster hits "Jailhouse Rock" and "There Goes My Baby," and they would carve out something of a specialty niche with gimmicky, half-serious songs like "Yakety Yak" and "Searchin'.'' But "Hound Dog" was not one of these. Whatever it eventually became, it was written as a conventional blues number. In the hands of Thornton, it was a thunderous and lyrically racy song about some no good hound dog of a man about to be kicked to the curb.

You ain't nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin' round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain't gonna feed you no more.


Thornton's recording soared to the top of the R&B charts, but it needed to be cleaned up before it would be ready for mainstream audiences. Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys did exactly that in 1955. They replaced the racy with the ridiculous, turned a declaration of no more sex ("You can wag your tail but I ain't gonna feed you no more") into a reprimand for poor hunting skills ("Well, you ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine"). Now street legal, the song was given a rock and roll rhythm and put on the Bell Boys' playlist. It was a crowd pleaser when they performed in Las Vegas in 1956. That's where Elvis heard it, liked it, and asked if he could record it.

Presley would release the song as the B-side of his 1956 single "Don't Be Cruel." But before he went into the studio, he test-drove the song on the Milton Berle Show. A pair of invitations from the king of television comedy had climaxed a career-making year for the young Presley. During 1955 he had parlayed regular appearances on the Louisiana Hayride (a country-western show broadcast via radio throughout the South and Midwest) into a sizable regional reputation. By the end of the year, all of the major labels wanted Elvis; in November, RCA won the bidding war and bought his contract from Sun Records. His first two singles with the new label –"Heartbreak Hotel" and "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You"—reached #1 on the pop and country charts.

By the time Presley showed up for his second appearance on Berle's show in June 1956, he was a rapidly rising star. During rehearsals, Berle encouraged him to perform the song Elvis had decided to play—"Hound Dog"—without his guitar. Apparently indifferent to the sort of firestorm that would eventually surround Presley's performance style, he told the gyrating Presley that without his guitar the audience would be able to get a better look at him. Elvis took the advice and ran with it. He started out "Hound Dog" up-tempo but after the third verse he slowed it down for a steamy, hip-pumping final verse. 

The kids in the crowd went wild, but so did the press in the days that followed. One critic compared his performance to the sort of "hootchy-kootchy . . . previously identified with the repertoire of the blonde bombshells of the burlesque runway." Ed Sullivan said it was simply "unfit for family viewing."

But the controversy only made Elvis a more attractive television commodity. Steve Allen booked him for his comedy/variety show the following week. And he asked Elvis to sing "Hound Dog"—but with a twist. Before a live television audience, Allen began by acknowledging the controversy surrounding Presley's last performance; he then invited Elvis, wearing a formal tuxedo, onstage for his "comeback." Waving a roll of paper towels signed by "18,000 fans," Allen turned the stage over to Presley and a hound dog in a top hat that Presley serenaded with his controversial number. 

It may have looked all in good fun—and Allen always claimed that it was—but it wasn't. Allen was a musician himself, a piano player and composer who wrote lounge ballads for singers like Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gormé, and Perry Como. He mocked rock and roll repeatedly on his show, called it "trash" and "illiterate." On one occasion, he described it using a more racially loaded term: "tribal sounds."

It's pretty clear that Allen set out to poke fun at the simple Southern kid and his music. And even if the audience didn't sense the hostile spirit in Allen's gag, Elvis and his band did. Guitarist Scotty Moore was the first to complain that the whole charade was an insult; Elvis would later label this performance his most ridiculous ever. But more immediately, Elvis lashed out at critics who thought a little music would turn the world upside down. "I don't care what they say. It's not nasty" ("The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time"). And even if it was, he added, turning from indignation to resolve, he was not about to bend to all the criticism and mockery. "Those people in New York are not gonna change me none," he declared at his next concert. "I'm gonna show you what the real Elvis is like tonight."

That's why Rolling Stone labeled "Hound Dog" a "declaration of independence from one generation to its cold rigid elders" ("The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time"). There's a bit of truth to this. After the Steve Allen Show appearance, Elvis dug in his blue suede heels and refused to be manipulated by older arbiters of television taste. But the "independence" he achieved was far from complete. Within weeks, he was appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show—the television show that would make or break artists for more than a decade. Presley knew this and so he accepted the invitation. But Sullivan also knew he needed Presley; he recognized, better than Allen, the future of American music. And so knowing that they needed one another, Presley and Sullivan quietly reached a compromise. Presley could perform as he pleased; Sullivan would only film him from the waist up.

In other words, the Steve Allen incident led less to a civil war than to an uneasy reconciliation. Elvis and Sullivan, rock and roll and the entertainment establishment, reached a compromise that allowed both to live with one another. And if we push a bit deeper, we realize that this was not the first compromise made by rock and roll—in fact, a far more significant compromise had been reached earlier when Freddie Bell, and then Elvis, decided to clean up the original lyrics in order to reach a wider audience. At that point, rock and roll was less interested in declaring independence from establishment standards-setters than in distancing itself from its R&B roots.

Which means that Rolling Stone got it only half right. "Hound Dog" may have initiated a wrestling match between one generation and another; it may have been the first shot in a battle between young and old that would continue through the 1950s and 1960s. But, at least in the beginning, the movement launched by white performers like Presley was less radical than it could have been. These early performers were stuck in sort of a tweener-zone, borrowing from R&B but unwilling to be limited to a narrow R&B market. They were determined to push the performance envelope, but only so far, and they were willing to prod conventional standards, but not at the risk of completely alienating the industry leaders that granted access to the mass market.

The bottom line: there's a reason we've all heard of Elvis Presley and not Big Mama Thornton; there's a reason Elvis sang "you ain't nothing but a hound dog" rather than "you ain't nothing but a m***** f*****."
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