People: Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley
The first version of “Hound Dog” was released in March 1953 by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, an African-American Rhythm and Blues singer from Alabama. With her larger-than-life personality and earthy vocal delivery, Thornton was one of the Rhythm and Blues performers who helped usher in the Rock and Roll era. “Hound Dog” was written specifically for Thornton by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a white, Jewish songwriting team with a love for R&B music, a genre generally associated with black audiences. The recording was produced by Johnny Otis, the son of Greek immigrants who grew up in an African-American community and identified as black. The mixing between races did not reflect the norms of segregated 1950s American life, but behind the scenes in music culture, such mixing was possible. The recording became the biggest hit of Thornton’s career, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and staying there for seven weeks.
In July 1956, Elvis Presley, a white singer from Memphis who as a teenager had developed a fascination with black music, recorded his own version of “Hound Dog” for RCA Records. Elvis combined elements of Country and Pop with R&B, ignoring racial classification in order to showcase the variety of genres he had absorbed growing up in the South. His recording of “Hound Dog” incorporated a fast tempo, prominent drumming, and a heightened vocal energy associated with the emerging Rock and Roll sound. As a white artist, Elvis released a version of “Hound Dog” that quickly overshadowed Thornton’s original, reaching the top of the R&B, Country, and Pop charts. The record became a massive crossover success that appealed to millions of young people, both black and white—a significant achievement of racial mixing in pre-Civil Rights America.
Places: Ariton, Houston, Los Angeles, Tupelo, and Memphis
Born in rural Ariton, Alabama, Willie Mae Thornton left home at 14 to pursue a career as a professional singer. In 1952, Thornton, already signed to Don Robey’s Peacock Records and living in Houston,Texas, Thornton connected with bandleader Johnny Otis. In a Los Angeles recording session, Otis helped bring Thornton together with songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who presented her with the music and lyrics for “Hound Dog.” Working with Leiber, Stoller, and Otis, Thornton recorded “Hound Dog” at Radio Recorders Annex on August 13, 1952. The record was released in March of the following year.
Like Thornton, Elvis Presley was raised in the South. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis grew up as an only child in a poor family. For much of Elvis’s early childhood, the Presleys lived in a series of rented rooms that were often in close proximity to African-American neighborhoods, where Elvis was exposed to black musical styles including the Blues, Gospel, and R&B. Combined with the spirituals he heard in church and the Country music his family listened to on the radio, Elvis’s musical education was diverse, and he absorbed it all.
In 1948, the Presleys moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis attended high school. Like much of the South before the Civil Rights movement, Memphis was a segregated city. The Presleys would soon be living in the Lauderdale Courts, a housing project for low income households that was restricted to white families, while Elvis attended Memphis’s all-white Humes High School. But Elvis’s musical curiosity often brought him to Beale Street, a predominantly black part of town, where he could witness the vibrant culture of Memphis’s African-American community. In 1954, when a 19-year-old Elvis made his first recordings at Memphis’s Sun Studio, his style displayed the variety of musical sounds, both white and black, that he’d heard growing up in Memphis. This mixing of musical cultures would remain prominent in his 1956 recording of “Hound Dog.”
The song “Hound Dog” does not directly comment on race relations in 1950s America. But when we consider the people who recorded the song, the places where these recordings were made, and the pre-Civil Rights era when these recordings were released, we can begin to see how “Hound Dog” reflected an important racial mixing that foreshadowed the changes that would be fought for in the Civil Rights era. Between Big Mama Thornton and Elvis’s respective releases of the song in 1953 and 1956, the country experienced some of the most significant early milestones of the Civil Rights movement that was just beginning, including Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Placed in this context, Elvis’s popular success with “Hound Dog,” a recording that drew heavily from both black and white musical influences, reflects the youth culture’s changing attitudes about race in the mid-1950s.
- MARCH 1953: BIG MAMA THORNTON RELEASES “HOUND DOG” — Issued by Peacock Records, the song, written for Thornton by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, resulted in a recording that reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and stayed there for seven weeks.
- MAY 1954: SUPREME COURT RULES ON BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION — The court strikes down state laws segregating black and white students, marking the end of the “separate but equal” doctrine laid out nearly 60 years earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson.
- JULY 1954: ELVIS RELEASES FIRST SINGLE ON SUN RECORDS — Produced by Sam Phillips, who had earlier opened his recording studio to black artists including Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, Elvis’s debut features covers of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s Rhythm & Blues song “That’s All Right” and the Bill Monroe Bluegrass song “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
- DECEMBER 1955: ROSA PARKS REFUSES TO GIVE UP HER SEAT ON A PUBLIC BUS — In refusing to give her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks’s symbolic act of defiance sparks the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
- JULY 1956: ELVIS PRESLEY RELEASES “HOUND DOG” — Elvis’s recording of the song, which had been covered by several artists since Thornton’s 1953 original, becomes the most successful version, reaching No. 1 on the R&B, Country, and Pop charts.