Big Mama Thornton did not suffer fools gladly. Known for her growling vocals, harmonica skills, and performing with her handbag in tow, she was always determined to do things her way. At a 1952 recording session with famed songwriting duo Leiber & Stoller, she was unimpressed with the duo: “They were just a couple of kids, and they had this song written on the back of a paper bag.” The song in question was “Hound Dog”, which had not yet been recorded by any artist. Big Mama took the song as it was, added her own interjections and distinctive rhythm, and a classic was born. The track rose to #1 on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart, and stayed there for 7 weeks. “Hound Dog” would prove to be Big Mama’s biggest hit. She later wrote “Ball and Chain”, which was covered to great effect by Janis Joplin. She continued to perform for the rest of her days, but her heavy drinking contributed to a heart attack that claimed her life in 1984. She was 57.
Big Mama is seen here performing “Hound Dog” with famed blues guitarist Buddy Guy in the 1960s. Clutching her purse in one hand as she enters, she punctuates the song with a terse, “And bow-wow to you, too.”
So, how did Elvis get his hands on “Hound Dog”? The song went through a slight rewrite in 1955 at the hands of Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, who changed some of the phrases (for example, “snoopin’ round my door” became “cryin’ all the time”). They hoped that the revised version of the song would appeal to a “broader” (read: white) audience, and their recording of the song became a regional hit. At one of the Bellboys’ 1956 shows in Las Vegas, Elvis Presley caught their act. Elvis was still a new artist, and when he asked Freddie Bell for permission to record their version of “Hound Dog” he agreed. Elvis’ recording would go on to become one of the most popular rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, shooting straight up the charts to number one. Elvis’ first televised performance of the song, on the Milton Berle Show in 1956, was also the first time he had performed without his guitar. Free to move for the first time, his charged performance stunned the studio audience and led to much controversy, as his movements (halfway through the song) were labelled “obscene”: