On the true blues origins of this rock & roll classic written for Big Mama Thornton
“Hound Dog,” written by the legendary songwriting duo of Leiber & Stoller, is one of the most famous records in the history of rock and roll as recorded by Elvis Presley. Yet it was not written to be rock & roll, nor intended for Elvis.
As the songwriters related themselves during a 1992 interview for this magazine, it was written before rock & roll mattered; it was a blues, the genre that they loved the most, and which brought them together. It was written not for Elvis, but for an artist they both loved, a giant in the blues world, Big Mama Thornton.
The true story of the song, like the story of the songwriters’ momentous first meeting, has rarely been told accurately, as certain signifcant nuances got confused.
The oft-told story was that Leiber & Stoller met each other when they were teens, which is true, and in Los Angeles, also true. Both were born into Jewish families; Leiber in Baltimore, 1933, and Stoller that same year in Long Island. They met when they were 16, after both moved with their families to Los Angeles. Leiber was attending Fairfax High when they met, and Stoller had already graduated from Belmont High and started college at L.A. City College.
The key part of their origin tale that is often confused was their first response to each other, in which Leiber, who wrote lyrics in need of music, met the piano-playing Stoller. According to many sources, Stoller informed Leiber that he should look elsewhere for a collaborator because, as he was quoted, “I don’t like songs.”
That this iconic songwriter started his legendary life of great songwriting by proclaiming a dislike of songs always seemed ironic at the least. But it wasn’t accurate.
As they explained, that is not what Mike said. He did like songs. What he meant was that he didn’t like pop songs. He was a serious jazz lover and a blues enthusiast. He did love jazz and blues songs, a lot, and aspired to write them.
“I was a snob,” Mike said. “I was a big Bebop fan. So I thought [Leiber] would, somehow, be writing songs that I just wouldn’t care for. That I’d consider commercial, which was a terrible word among jazz musicians. Not that I was a jazz musician. But I wanted to be.”
But both of them loved the blues. And that is where their legendary collaboration, in which they became among the first architects of rock & roll.
It was a bond they forged when Mike looked over Jerry’s notebook of lyrics, and discovered, to his delight, that they were all written in the old blues form; the first line of a verse repeated twice, then was followed by a rhyming punch-line, as in “Hound Dog.”
You ain’t nothing but a hound dog/Been snoopin’ ’round the door
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
From “Hound Dog” by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Once Leiber & Stoller recognized their shared passion for blues, they started writing songs together, and were good at it. Actually great. And they never stopped.
Stoller, then and today, was a great pianist, so it was a reasonable assumption that he wrote the music for “Hound Dog” on piano. But he did not. As he explains in the following discussion, he didn’t write it on an instrument at all. He wrote by banging on his car, a grey-green Plymouth. More on that to follow.
How this song was pitched, received and recorded by Big Mama, who had a hit with it on what was known then as “race radio,” which meant black music, is all herein. As is their response to Elvis’ rendition of the song, which had the wrong groove, and wrong lyrics, something which irked the songwriters forever.
AMERICAN SONGWRITER: Much of the history of “Hound Dog” has been distorted, so let’s set the record straight. It’s true you wrote it after you heard Big Mama Thornton sing?
MIKE STOLLER: Inbetween seeing her sing and coming back to a rehearsal at Johnny Otis’ house.
Did you write it on piano?
STOLLER: No. I wrote it on my old car. [Laughs]
LEIBER: A green Plymouth.
STOLLER: It was actually gray. It was a gray 1937 Plymouth. [Pause] Actually, it was greenish gray, you’re right.
And that main line, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” just came to you?
LEIBER: Yeah, it did. And I felt “you ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog” was a dummy lyric. I was not happy. I wanted something that was a lot more insinuating. I wanted something that was sexy and insinuating. And I told Mike I didn’t like it, we were driving, and he said, “I like it, man.”
The two of us walked in [Mike’s] house, and into this sort of a den, where this upright piano was. And I was singing. I started singing it in the car on the way over: “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, quite snoopin’ round my door.”
And I didn’t have all the lyrics. And we walked into Mike’s house, into the den, and he walked over – and I will never forget it, the moment is indelibly etched on my memory – he walked over to the piano, and he had a cigarette in his mouth, and the smoke was curling up into his eye, and he kept it there and he was playing, and he was grooving with the rhythm, and he was grooving, grooving, and we locked into one place. Lyrical content, syllabically, locked in to the rhythm of the piano. And we knew we had it.
We wrote it in about twelve minutes. And I will never forget it. He had the smoke from this cigarette curling up into his left eye, and I was watching him.
And he was singing, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” and I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah – that’s it.”
STOLLER: And we drove back to the rehearsal [of Big Mama]. Because we had been invited. We had worked with Johnny Otis on a couple of sessions with Little Esther and Little Willie doing duets with Little Esther, and so on. And [Johnny Otis] called me and said, “Are you familiar with Willie Mae Thornton?”
I said, “No, I’m not.”
He said, “Well, I need some songs.”
The procedure, before that, was that we’d get a call from Ralph Bass, who was the head of Federal Records, a division of King. He would call and say, “We’re cutting Little Esther tomorrow. 2:00 to 5:00 at Radio Recorders. Bring some songs.”
And we would write two or three songs. And sometimes during the session, during which we’d try to get some of our ideas done, even though we were just newcomers in that field, we’d go out in the hall and write another one.
So Johnny called and said, “Come over and listen to her and write some songs,” and that’s the way that happened. We went over and heard her and said, “Whoa!” We ran over to my house in my car, wrote the song, came back.
LEIBER: I just remembered – we came back to the rehearsal, and I had this sheet of paper. And we walked in. And I think I said, “We got it.”
And Big Mama walked over and she grabbed the sheet out of my hand and she said, “Let me see this.”
I looked at her and I looked at the sheet. And I saw that the sheet was upside-down. And she was just staring at it, looking at it, as if she could read it, right?
She said, “What does it say?”
I said, “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, quit snooping round my door.”
She said, “Oh, that’s pretty.” She took the sheet back and she started singing [slowly and melodically], “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog…” She’s singing a ballad. She’s crooning a ballad.
And I said, “Mama, it don’t go like that.”
“She was singing to a man. He was singing to a dog.“
She grabbed the sheet and she said to me, “Don’t you tell me how to sing.” And she started to sing it again.
Johnny Otis had witnessed this little contretemps, and he came over, and he was getting a little bit salty. And he said, “Mama, don’t you want a hit?” And she said yes.
And he said, “These guys can get you a hit.”
STOLLER: He said, “These guys write hits. Which was –
LEIBER: Not true [Laughter].
He said, “These guys can write you a hit.” She accepted that, and he said something like, “Now be good.” Like he was punishing a child.
Then he turned to me and he said, “Why don’t you perform it for her? Why don’t you demonstrate the song?”
I was a little nervous, because there was about a twelve-piece band sitting on a platform – it was a pretty big band – and I was always used to performing a song wherever, whatever, with Mike. He played the piano, I sang the song, no big deal. And I got up to sing the song, and half a dozen of the men – the rhythm section more than anybody else, guitar and drums, bass, whatever – sort of accompanied.
Mike was not playing the piano when I turned around. And he was standing by the piano, smoking. And Johnny Otis said, “What about your buddy?”
I said, “He’ll play in a moment. He’s just getting ready.” And I said, “Mike – play piano.” He was very self-conscious in those days and didn’t like to perform. He was gonna sit it out. And I almost pleaded with him to play the piano.
The groove she was singing was not right. I said, “Mama, it don’t go like that.”
She said, “I know how it goes. It goes like this…”
I didn’t know how to deal with this. I said, “Mike, play the piano.” And the groove fell right in, cause he had the groove.
My thought about you two is that Mike wrote the music and Jerry the words – separately – but you seem to suggest that you, Jerry, sort of had the music for that.
LEIBER: Just a road map. Mike wrote the melody.
And, just to clarify, you wrote the melody apart from the piano – you just sang it?
STOLLER: More or less. Based partially on what he was singing, and how I felt it should go. But it wasn’t written out on a lead sheet and handed to Mama. We didn’t have time to sit down and write out anything.
LEIBER: I think I had the music for the very first line. [Sings] “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog…” And Mike picked that up and went with it, and developed the rest of it.
That main line, and title, is iconic now. But it’s true you didn’t like it?
LEIBER: The line was not what I wanted. Sometimes you make mistakes.
STOLLER: Thank goodness. [Laughs]
Big Mama Thornton’s version is in E flat. Did you write it in that key?
STOLLER: No, Do you have perfect pitch?
LEIBER: I do, but I’m a baseball player. [Laughs]
STOLLER: I didn’t write it in a key. I was just shouting it out at first. I probably played it in C, on piano cause it was easier. But you never can tell, because sometimes we would record things in one key and then pitch them up or down.
LEIBER: Presley never did that at all. Presley would sing the song in the key that the demo was in. Even if he had to strain his larynx and everything else.
STOLLER: Because he learned them –
LEIBER: In that key.
Though the original “Hound Dog,” by Mama Thornton, was in E flat, and he sang it in C.
LEIBER: That’s because he got the song from Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. He did not learn the song from Mama’s record.
STOLLER: He knew her record, but it was a woman’s song and he never sang it until he heard Freddie Bell & The Bellboys in Vegas, who had distorted the song so that they could sing it –
LEIBER: Lyrics and music.
STOLLER: Yeah, both. And that’s how he learned it.
Though I’m almost positive that Big Mama’s record was in E. I know they were playing it in E. It depended on the piano in the studio, which might have been out of tune. I’m pretty sure it was E. If the piano was out of tune, they tuned the guitars and bass to it. So although it was being played in E, since it was not in tune, it sounded closer to E flat. It was probably in the crack between keys.
It was Pete Lewis playing that guitar solo. And he had retuned his guitar to what was, ostensibly, a Southern tuning. It was not standard E-A-D-G-B-E. It was tuned differently. So I am also positive that he would have played it in E.
And “Kansas City” was probably written in C. Because at that time I used to write a lot of things in C, because it was easy to whip them off that way. And that was done by Little Willie Littlefield. That was the first record. He was a boogie-woogie blues pianist. And it’s possible that it was in E flat. It may be. We taught the song to Little Willie at Maxwell Davis’ home.
LEIBER: He chipped his tooth on the microphone.
Did Elvis know Big Mama’s version of “Hound Dog” ?
STOLLER: He did. But that’s not where he learned it.
LEIBER: He didn’t do her version.
STOLLER: Her version is a woman’s song. It’s a woman’s lyric and she did it in that way.
He heard a white group called Freddie Bell & The Bellboys. I learned this later. They apparently were hired as a lounge act in Vegas, and when he walked through Vegas, he heard them doing it.
LEIBER: It was what you heard from him. Ostensibly, it was like an English skiffle shuffle band.
So Elvis got his lyrics from Freddie Bell?
LEIBER & STOLLER: Yeah.
Was it Freddie Bell who rewrote the lyrics?
STOLLER: Yeah. Or somebody did.
LEIBER: I wrote, “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, quit snooping round my door, you can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more. You told me you was high class, but I can see through that, you told me you was high class, but I can see through that, and Daddy, I know –“
STOLLER: “—you ain’t no real cool cat, you ain’t nothing but a hound dog.”
Freddie Bell’s is, “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time –“
LEIBER & STOLLER: “—you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.”
LEIBER: Which was nonsense! But he liked the lick, he liked the sound.
STOLLER: She was singing to a man. And he was singing to a dog. [Laughter]
LEIBER: She was singing to a gigolo, to be very precise. Somebody that was sponging off of her. That’s what it was about.
So were you unhappy with the lyric as Elvis did it?
LEIBER & STOLLER: Yeah.
LEIBER: I didn’t like [his] record, either. Mama’s record was it.
Pete Lewis playing that guitar solo, with her screaming her heart out. That was it.
And Presley, he did records that we really loved. One of the best records we’ve ever had of a ballad of ours was “Love Me.” One of the very best. And he did a great job on a lot of songs.
STOLLER: “Jailhouse Rock.” I mean, that’s great.
LEIBER: But his biggest song of ours, I think, I feel, Mike does, I think so, too, I can speak for you, was just not up to snuff. It wasn’t up to his standards either, I don’t think.
Some people consider it your greatest song. People have said if you wrote nothing other than “Hound Dog,” that would have been enough.
LEIBER: That is, in a sense, true. The point is, though, the record that is celebrated is not the record that should be celebrated. It should be Big Mama Thornton’s record. That’s the way it was conceived, and that’s the way it was written, and that’s more or less, and very much more Mike’s bag, because the rhythm pattern that Mike played that day on Columbia Avenue is the rhythm pattern that was used for Big Mama Thornton.
Did you produce Big Mama’s record of it?
LEIBER: Just about.
STOLLER: I’ll tell you what happened: Johnny [Otis] was running the session, but Johnny had played the run-through at his house. He was the drummer. It was his garage.
When we went to Radio Recorders to record it, he went to the booth, because he had to make the record, and he was ostensibly making the records. There was no named producer. That word hadn’t even come into the lexicon in recorded music yet.
So he was making the record, and Jerry said to him, “It ain’t happening.” His drummer was “Kansas City” Bell. Layard Bell.
LEIBER: Bell. You’re right. Again! [Laughs]
STOLLER: And Jerry said, “It’s not happening. And you’ve got to get out there on the drums.”
Johnny said, “Well, who will run the session?”
And Jerry said, “We will.”
LEIBER: It was the beginning of it. Of producing.
STOLLER: And he went, “Okay,” and he went out there and played the drums.
We did two takes. The first one was fabulous and the second one was magnificent. [Laughs] And that was it.
And needless to say, everything was cut live. No overdubs –
STOLLER: No. Mono.
And that groove that he plays is so hip. It’s a deep pocket groove, slower than the other, and so funky. Like R&B.
LEIBER: Right. That is how we wanted it. That’s how it was intended. So when we heard Elvis’ version, we didn’t like it. Mike was more tolerant than I was, though. But we really didn’t like it.
STOLLER: It was nervous sounding. It didn’t have that insinuation that Big Mama’s record had.
LEIBER: You know what’s strange about it? It’s something that really is sort of an imitation that never really turned out well. It became one of the biggest smashes of all time. And lots of songs and records that we made that were really great never made it at all.
STOLLER: It’s a matter of aesthetics. It’s where you live. And what really gets to you. That’s really the most important thing. And once in a while you do something that you feel is just right, and everybody else thinks so, too. Then you’ve really accomplished something.
Aside from the groove and the lyrics, did you think Elvis, on “Hound Dog,” had a good voice?
LEIBER & STOLLER: Yeah.
And you knew nothing about him when you first heard it?
LEIBER: No. But when we heard him, I think we thought he was an animal. He had a voice, a range, that was unreal.
STOLLER: Animal in the most positive light.
LEIBER: He would go out there. He was like one big champion in the recording studio. We’d tell him we need one more. It was Take 58. And he’d do it. And he’d do it with the same kind of zest and energy as take one.
STOLLER: He loved. To perform.
LEIBER: That’s when he was really himself. He was very self-conscious. Very, almost always, openly, embarrassed about being anywhere socially or being anywhere where it had to do with his mixing with anybody.
He carried his entourage, the Memphis Mafia, with him, and they were his family, and they knew him. If he wanted a peanut-butter sandwich with tomatoes on a bagel, they all understood.
STOLLER: No, I don’t think he ever ordered a bagel in his life –
LEIBER: No, I know.
STOLLER: I know. Orange pop and peanut-butter and banana sandwiches.
LEIBER: But when he was behind the microphone, that’s where he lived.
Big Mama’s vocal on that is amazing. So raw intense. At first when reading you didn’t like his version, I couldn’t understand. But I get it. The way she screams it, the rage, makes it a whole different thing.
LEIBER: Right. And that was her. That is why we wrote it like that. It’s an angry song for a woman who is really pissed off at her man, who played around on her. He was the dog. Elvis is singing it to a real dog. Which is not right at all.
I always felt that, even with Big Mama singing, that “hound dog” was too tame. I told Mike, “I like the song idea, but I don’t like that word. That word is kind of replacing another kind of a word.”
He said, “What are you looking for?”
I said, “Do you remember Furry Lewis’ record “Dirty Mother”?
He said, “Yeah?”
I said, “Well, I’d like to write something like that. That’s what I was hearing. “You ain’t nothing but a motherfucker.”
Mike said, “You’ll ruin it. If you write something like that, they won’t play it.”
I said, “I don’t care if they don’t play it, I want this word in the song.”
He said, “Jer, leave it alone. I think you’re making a mistake.”
STOLLER: Well, I liked “Hound Dog.” I liked the sound of it.
LEIBER: It’s not what I wanted.
STOLLER: Thank Goodness. [Laughter]
It’s amazing to me to hear any discontent with that song or record, as both are so famous. I read that you also have a disagreement about your song “Kansas City”?
STOLLER: Yes. We’ve had a disagreement about everything since 1950. [Laughs]
LEIBER: Our relationship is the longest running single argument in the entertainment business.