Hound Dog helped to launch the career of Elvis Presley.
The song was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stroller. The duo wrote the song for Big Mama Thornton to suit her personality.
In an interview in Rolling Stone in April 1990, Stoller said: “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 the opening line “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog” was a euphemism…the tale of a woman throwing a gigolo out of her house and her life.”
According to Iain Thomas, “‘Hound Dog’ embodies the Thornton persona she had crafted as a comedienne prior to entering the music business” by parading “the classic puns, extended metaphors, and sexual double entendres so popular with the bawdy genre.”
The duo wrote the lyrics in about twelve minutes while driving. According to Leiber, as soon as they reached the parking lot and Stoller’s 1937 Plymouth, “I was beating out a rhythm we called the ‘buck dance’ on the roof of the car. 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.”
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton originally recorded the song on August 13, 1952. The song was his only hit record and is considered “helping to spur the evolution of black &B into rock music” according to Wikipedia.
Elvis recorded his version, the best-known, in July 1956. His version was ranked #19 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time; it is also one of the best-selling singles of all time.
One historian said Presley’s rendition of Hound Dog is “an emblem of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution”. By the time Presley recorded the song, Thornton’s version and other renditions had left the spotlight.
Elvis added “Hound Dog” to his live performances at the New Frontier Hotel. Then he performed the song on the Milton Berle Show and the Steve Allen show.
Steve Allen wrote: “When I booked Elvis, I naturally had no interest in just presenting him vaudeville-style and letting him do his spot as he might in concert. Instead we worked him into the comedy fabric of our program … We certainly didn’t inhibit Elvis’ then-notorious pelvic gyrations, but I think the fact that he had on formal evening attire made him, purely on his own, slightly alter his presentation.” As Allen was notoriously contemptuous of rock ‘n’ roll music and songs such as “Hound Dog”, he smirkingly presented Elvis “with a roll that looks exactly like a large roll of toilet paper with, says Allen, the ‘signatures of eight thousand fans,'” and the singer had to wear a tuxedo while singing an abbreviated version of “Hound Dog” to an actual top hat-wearing Basset Hound.
Elvis performed the song three times on the Ed Sullivan show.
Despite its commercial success, “Elvis used to say that ‘Hound Dog’ was the silliest song he’d ever sung and thought it might sell ten or twelve records right around his folks’ neighborhood.
The song has also been featured in a number of movies including Grease, Forrest Gump, Lilo & Stitch, A Few Good Men, Hounddog, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Nowhere Boy.