Most people know “Hound Dog” as an Elvis Presley song from 1956, his best-selling single and his first #1. But it was originally recorded by, and specifically written for, a 25-year old blues singer, aptly nicknamed, “Big Mama.”
In 1952, producer and R&B bandleader Johnny Otis found himself with a problem. Peacock Records had recently hired him to reverse the failed fortunes of one of their young artists who could deliver the goods live on stage, but had yet to find the proper vehicle on disc. Otis decided to enlist the help of a virtually unknown (and unlikely) songwriting team who had recently scored a Top 10 R&B hit with their first composition.
Enter Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, two Jewish teens living in the Los Angeles suburbs, who would proceed to shape the future of rock & roll and R&B over the next two decades, writing and producing 70 chart hits, including five #1 songs. (Perhaps you’ve heard “Jailhouse Rock,” or “Love Potion #9,” or “Stand By Me”). In 1952, however, they were still just a couple of guys who needed a job. Any job.
Otis invited the boys over to his house to meet Thornton so they could get an idea of her personality. When they arrived, Leiber and Stoller found themselves shaking hands with a 300-pound woman with what appeared to be knife scars on her face, and, as they later recounted, a “brusque and badass” demeanor.
The song they wrote for her, “Hound Dog,” perfectly expressed the tough and gritty swagger Thornton exuded on stage. But when Leiber handed her the lyrics, she began to croon them, sadly, like a Sinatra ballad. He stopped her and told her that wasn’t the way to sing it. Big Mama stared daggers at him before saying, “Don’t tell me how to sing the blues.” He bravely proceeded to do just that, though, singing it himself with the raw growl it needed, and Thornton immediately understood what she needed to do. She ripped it to shreds.
Ain’t nobody mess with Big Mama.
The “Hound Dog” single was released in the winter of 1953. It sold over half a million copies, sat atop the R&B chart for 7 weeks, and instantly spawned more than a dozen cover versions, parodies, and “answer” songs. Four years later, Elvis Presley cemented the rock & roll revolution with his version of a song written for a woman about a low down, good for nothing man.
This is Big Mama’s house. And we all just dogs.