Mike Stoller, one of the original writers of Elvis Presley’s 1956 hit “Hound Dog,” says the song was never stolen from blues singer and songwriter Big Mama Thornton. Stoller, now 89, recounted the story of how the hit song ended up with Presley.
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Originally written by Stoller and his writing partner, the late Jerry Leiber, when they were teenagers, the pair wrote “Hound Dog” within 15 minutes after seeing Thornton sing. “I don’t remember exactly what the song was,” remembered Stoller of seeing Thornton for the first time, “but she knocked us out.”
The song was initially recorded by Thornton in 1952 before Presley released his version four years later. Though Thornton’s “Hound Dog” was a hit, and remained at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart for seven weeks, the writing credits for the song were never listed correctly, and the songwriters, nor Thornton, received any compensation. “I was very upset with what happened,” said Stoller of the situation around the original release of the song.
The pair eventually received royalties from “Hound Dog” once Presley released his hit version—which topped the R&B and pop charts and was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988. Thornton still didn’t receive any financial return, even after the continued success of the song she originally recorded, which may have been a result of the corruption within the music business at the time and “systematic racism,” according to interviewer Brian Hiatt. “That’s true of not only Big Mama,” agreed Hiatt, “but of many black performers and songwriters.”
Although Presley was familiar with Thornton’s original version of “Hound Dog,” his rendition of the track was based on the 1955 version recorded by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, according to Stoller, which had a more simplified chord structure and alternate lyrics shifting the song focus to a dog, not a man acting like a “dog” toward a woman.
The songwriter said that Presley never stole the essence of what Thornton did with her version and “was doing it pretty much the way they [Freddie Bell and the Bellboys] had written the song and it seemed to be about a dog.” Stoller added that he preferred Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and that Presley’s version “didn’t have the groove that Big Mama’s record had, which was fantastic.”
In the recent Baz Luhrmann biopic Elvis, blues singer Thornton is depicted in the film and played by Shonka Dukureh, but Stoller and Leiber were left out. “I didn’t expect anything, so therefore, I was not disappointed in that regard,” said Stoller of not being represented in the film, adding that he was happier that Thornton and their original version of the song were included.
“It’s a song that a woman sings to a man, not a man to a dog,” added Stoller.
Leiber and Stoller went on to write a collection of hits, including “Jailhouse Rock” and “King Creole” for Presley as well as the Ben E. King classic “Stand by Me.”
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