Young Elvis Presley singing into a mic

Nineteen years ago, I graduated from the Ohio State University. As a somewhat lackluster student, I wasn’t able to pull things together to graduate on time and missed the big ceremony that used to be held on the Oval. Instead I was stuck with the rather grim winter quarter graduation at St. John Arena. Winter quarter graduation speakers were selected by the faculty, who unsurprisingly picked one of themselves.*

The speaker, whose name I unfortunately can’t remember, was a voice professor from the music school. His speech was a combination of talking, poetry and singing, with a soaring list of musical comparisons to an unstated something (i.e. calling down the defiant beauty of contralto Marian Anderson’s 1939 rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the Lincoln Memorial). He didn’t bother to tie any of it into the idea of graduation, it just sort of rolled.

But one thing he said sort of stuck with me. He mentioned the power of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” before Elvis Presley “stole her song.” My first exposure to the concept of cultural appropriation.

I was aware that Elvis’ version of “Hound Dog” was a cover of an earlier song by Thornton, although I had never heard her version. These were the days before Youtube, and while I probably could have dug it out at Johnny Go’s or Magnolia Thunderpussy it would have been a lot of effort.

But for whatever reason his words nagged at me. And while hanging out at Barnes and Noble one day in 2008, I saw a book called “Hound Dog,” by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The front cover had a picture of two guys looking at a sheet of music with Elvis, and the back featured this quote from Ray Charles: “I know all about Leiber and Stoller. They were those bad white boys who wrote the blackest songs this side of the Mississippi. I loved what they did.”

Remembering the professor, I bought the book, took it home, and read it in one sitting. I then ordered every Leiber/Stoller compilation album I could put my hands on. These guys had written (or co-written) a hundred songs I knew – “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” Yakety Yak,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Stand by Me,” “There Goes My Baby,” “On Broadway,” “I’m a Woman.”

I could write five columns about the happiness the book gave me, how it served as a jumping off point to new worlds of music, and its glorious disrespect of Phil Specter. But as Leiber and Stoller themselves admit in the book, it doesn’t matter what they ever did or ever will accomplish -- they will always be known as the guys who wrote “Hound Dog.”

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes songs become part of the national consciousness. “Hound Dog” is one of them – even people who don’t know it somehow know of it. It’s like school children learn there was a guy named Elvis who had a song that starts “you ain’t nothin but a hound dog!” right before Washington crossing the Delaware.

The song’s convoluted history lives up to the hype. At the time they wrote “Hound Dog,” in the early 50’s, Lieber and Stoller were 19-year-old hipsters from Los Angeles writing songs for African-American artists (such as Thornton and Charles Brown) that were intended for an African-American audience. The original lyrics as heard in Thornton’s 1953 version are about a woman throwing a worthless gigolo out of her life. Its weird groove and amazing vocal sold 750,000 copies.

By 1956, Freddy Bell and the Bell Boys were playing a lyrically mangled version of the song at the Sands Casino in Las Vegas, where they were seen by a young Elvis Presley. In Bell’s version, “Hound Dog” lost its gigolo meaning and became just an insult. An impressed Elvis added Bell’s version to his act.

Later that year the Tonight Show’s Steve Allen humiliated Elvis by forcing him to sing “Hound Dog” to an actual Hound Dog. Leaving us with the bizarre circumstance of a man singing a woman’s song about a man that was not actually a hound dog to an actual hound dog.

The next day, enraged by his treatment on the Tonight Show, Elvis went into the studio and recorded his angry, punk rockabilly version as a middle finger to Allen. He later said that it was the silliest song he had ever recorded, and that he thought it might sell ten or twelve records around his parents’ neighborhood. To date it has sold ten million.

So was the professor right that Hound Dog was an ugly example of cultural appropriation? It’s awfully hard to say one way or another, but it certainly is a great American story.

*A blessing in disguise as it turns out – the speaker for my on-time graduate friends was Bill Cosby.

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