“Hound Dog”: Did Elvis get rich stealing from black artists?
You start getting curious about where rock came from. You figure out that it was heavily influenced by black r’n’b. You notice that white artists were disproportionately represented among the rich and famous. You might go on to conclude that less-talented white artists owed their success to more-talented black artists. That they basically ripped them off. Lots of people have concluded just that.
Hey, there’s never been an artist bigger than Elvis, and his debt to black music is undeniable. And when you learn that his signature hit, “Hound Dog,” was first recorded by a black woman that you never heard of, your case seems to be made. Here’s a blog post (accompanying a video of the Thornton version) making that very point(1):
‘Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”…Before Elvis stole it…’
“That’s right…Elvis stole the song “Hound Dog” from a Black female blues singer named Big Mama Thornton…ain’t that sum shit? White males have stolen every aspect of Black music from the beginning and this is just a lil’ taste of how famous one can become off of a stolen song. This woman got no credit for her song for decades!”
This is just one example of a certain strain of puddle-deep music crit that is almost its own genre; it goes something like this: “‘Hound Dog’ was an authentic product of black culture, which a race- insensitive (or even racist) Elvis ripped off, in the process reaping the rewards that duly belonged to its originator.”
Well, sorta, but mostly no.
It’s a Gumbo
“Hound Dog” was written for a black r’n’b shouter (Thornton, who, it’s true, never made much money from it, but only because she was under onerous contract t0 a black-owned record label), at the behest of a Greek producer who essentially lived as a black man (the inimitable Johnny Otis); it was written by two teenage urban Jewish leftists who worshipped black culture (the legendary Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller).
And that’s why I love the story of “Hound Dog”: in one essential and essentially trivial song, it encapsulates the complex interweavings of race and ethnicity that made 20th century vernacular American music such a powerful cultural force.
The Plot Thickens
Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog,” far from being an obscurity, was a huge hit for the urban r’n’b audience. So big that an answer song was soon released by a black artist (the amazing Rufus Thomas) for a white label owner (the uncategorizable Sam Phillips) who had a vision of fusing black and white music into pop hits. Phillips, of course, was to find the vehicle for his dream in a young white boy who also revered black music. (Elvis would have been familiar with Big Mama’s version of “Hound Dog” as well as Rufus Thomas’ answer song “Bear Cat,” the first hit for Sun Records.)
Having ridden his rock’n’roll dream to new pop stardom, Elvis, during his first, unsuccessful run in Las Vegas, catches a completely reworked version of the song by a white r’n’b lounge act, (Freddy Bell and the Bellboys) and appropriates it as his own, starting to play it in his live shows and in two iconic television appearances before recording it in New York City. It becomes a pop hit, all right, going to #1, but here’s the amazing thing: it also goes to #1 on the r’n’b charts…AND #1 on the country’n’western charts. No other song before or since has done that. “Hound Dog” marked a singular moment in time when the tastes of the public were in nearly complete alignment, regardless of race.
The Whole Story
There’s more – disputes over writing credits and copyright, the genesis of the Thornton and Presley recordings, and more – but space limitations don’t permit me to elaborate here. I’m sure there’s a book in it, and someday I’ll write that book. But for now, a podcast will have to do; originally broadcast on listener-supported KOWS, Occidental, CA, on Saturday, 2/8/2014, on the “Deeper Roots” radio show, hosted by Dave Stroud. (I was Dave’s guest.) Dig it: http://deeperroots.podomatic.com/entry/2014-02-08T17_11_21-08_00