Who Wrote the Controversial-Yet-Classic Blues Rock Song, “Hound Dog”?

In some ways, this classic early rock ‘n’ roll song, Hound Dog,” has become a lightning rod at the center of an unwinnable debate. It has become Big Mama Thornton against Elvis Presley.

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But it doesn’t have to be seen this way and it probably shouldn’t be reduced to such roles.

Here, we will dive into the history of the song, who wrote it, and more.

Who Wrote “Hound Dog”?

While the song has come to be associated with Big Mama Thornton and Elvis, neither artist wrote the tune. But it was written for Thornton.

It all started on a summer day in 1952. It was August 12 when R&B bandleader Johnny Otis asked two 19-year-old songwriters, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller, for help.

Thornton had signed to Peacock Records but her songs had failed to move the proverbial needle. So the young songwriters were brought in to do something.

In 1990, Stoller told Rolling Stone, “She was a wonderful blues singer, with a great moaning style. But it was as much her appearance as her blues style that influenced the writing of ‘Hound Dog’ and the idea that we wanted her to growl it.”

Leiber said, “We saw Big Mama and she knocked me cold. She looked like the biggest, baddest, saltiest chick you would ever see. And she was mean, a ‘lady bear,’ as they used to call ’em. She must have been 350 pounds, and she had all these scars all over her face” conveying words that could not be sung. “But how to do it without actually saying it? And how to do it telling a story? I couldn’t just have a song full of expletives.”

The result was the idea of the hound dog or the loaf of a man who always needs someone else to take care of him. A relatable character and a metaphor and a half.

Sang Thornton, going in on the selfish guy:

You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Quit snoopin’ ’round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain’t gonna feed you no more

According to lore, Leiber and Stoller wrote the song in less than 15 minutes. Leiber wrote the lyrics in pencil on paper on the way to Stoller’s apartment. He said, “‘Hound Dog’ took like twelve minutes. That’s not a complicated piece of work. But the rhyme scheme was difficult. Also, the metric structure of the music was not easy.”

“I was beating out a rhythm we called the ‘buck dance’ on the roof of the car [Stoller’s 1937 Plymouth],” remembered Leiber about the process. “We got to Johnny Otis’s house and Mike went right to the piano … didn’t even bother to sit down. He had a cigarette in his mouth that was burning his left eye, and he started to play the song.”

The vibe of the writing process was so fruitful that Otis, Leiber, and Stoller wrote more versions of the song, including one Thornton recorded called, “Tom Cat.”

The Legacy

The single was the most successful for Thornton in her career. She recorded it in 1952 and Peacock Records released it in February 1953. She sold more than 500,000 copies of the song and it stayed on the R&B charts for 14 weeks. Seven of those weeks it was the No. 1 song. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in February 2013. The song features a jaunty blues guitar riff and Thornton’s hefty growl.

Elvis Presley recorded his version in 1956. It became one of the best-selling singles of all time, with some 10 million copies sold. The song was No. 1 on the U.S. pop, country, and R&B charts in 1956 upon its release. It was the No. 1 song for 11 weeks. That was a record for 36 years.

When Elvis performed the song in 1956 on The Ed Sullivan Show, hair slicked back, hips shaking, the world changed.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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