Thursday, April 04, 2024

Review A Hound Dog’s Tale

Books about almost everything Elvis Presley have been written, University professor Ben Wynne added a book on one of his classic hits, the Rock and Roll anthem ‘Hound Dog’ titled 'A Hound Dog Tale - Big Mama, Elvis, and the Song That Changed Everything'. The song is mostly associated with Elvis Presley, but it stands for so much more, as the cover-art with Big Mama Thornton taking top-billing, so nicely illustrates. 


Ben Wynne's 184-page hardcover book comes with a fifties-style cover featuring the two performers that made this song what it is; Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley. The cover is one the Colonel certainly wouldn’t approve, Elvis never takes second billing, but here it is a good reflection of the ‘Hound Dog’s tale’ told between the covers of the book. 

Ben Wynne is professor of history at the University of North Georgia and author of the books 'In Tune: Charley Patton', 'Jimmie Rodgers', and the 'Roots of American Music'. Written by a University professor, it is only logical we get a text-based book with a handful black and white pictures of some of the main characters that are part of the story behind the song. 

With a book written around a record / song, the two details I missed were pictures of the actual records by Big Mama Thornton, Elvis Presley and Rufus Thomas and the lyrics of the main versions of the song. The latter is important to fully understand the many references the author makes to those in the book, as they are important for the story. But this could be due to another important subject in the book, “copyrights”. 

Also as to be expected reading an academic study, the book closes with 15 pages of notes and a 15-page bibliography containing the many sources used to tell 'A Hound Dog's Tale', proving that the author did extensive research for this book. 

Wynne has a pleasant, colorful and energetic writing style, which makes this book easy to read and hard to put the book aside. The many quotes and references in the text add to the pleasant reading experience, adding credibility, and making the story and main characters come alive. 


"It seems like a simple song on the surface," the author said, adding "but it's got a pretty complicated backstory."  After reading the book I can only conclude that the author is correct. Fortunately for us, he outlines the story behind the song from start to finish, and perhaps more important, the impact it had on our society. This is something we may not realize now, listening to Willie Mae Thornton or Elvis belting out this song as respectively a Blues and Rock and Roll song. 

After a short introduction Wynne tells the story in four logical chapters: 'The Songwriters’, Big Mama’, Answers and Pretenders’ and ‘Elvis’ before wrapping it all up in an epilogue. 

In the introduction the author sets the stage for the song, paining it's origin, going back to 1953, the first hit recording by Big Mama Thornton, the link to SUN Records, Elvis and various eclectic characters that have a role in this tale. And there are many: from ambitious songwriters, a sometimes violent nightclub owner and record producer, white guys wanting to be "black", music salesmen, bandleaders, blues artists, radio station owners, a tame lounge singer in Vegas, a young man from Memphis, TV Show hosts to of course the young record-buyers and their not-so-happy parents ... just to name a few. 

The chapter about the songwriters paints the background of two Jewish young men named Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Both young men identified themselves with the black community, wanting to be part of it and wanting to be(come) black as the author states. Being black almost became a second nature for these young men and their upbringing sparked the interest in black music. 

Here we see a difference with Elvis I think, he was part of the black community, growing up there, but he did not per se wanted to be black. He didn't (have to) distinguish between black or white, he did what came naturally to him. 

Growing up in a black environment laid the foundation for their songwriting style and genre they chose: black music, grounded in the blues tradition. After a few first recordings of their early compositions, they struck gold with a black song for a black, female blues performer named Willie Mae Thornton - artist name Big Mama Thornton - who was reluctant at first to record a song, written by two white Jewish guys. 

In the chapter ‘Big Mama’ we learn a lot about the (black) music business in the fifties, race records, life on the road, the troubles, the segregation … and the impact het breakthrough nationwide hit ‘Hound Dog’ had on all these subjects. The song help the emancipation of the “race records”, crossing racial borders, back music connecting with white youngsters, and hitting the wrong nerve with their parents and the Church. 

We may read this book because we’re Elvis Presley fans, but you have to realize that this is a book about a song - also performed by Elvis - but also a book about, coming of age in the fifties, shady deals, club and record managers, a changing American society and the emancipation of black culture in a Jim Crow society. 

On the positive side, black music being played more and more on the big (white) radio stations, hitting the charts, crossing geographical, racial barriers and generations contributed to the emancipation of the music industry, perhaps in the same way as digital music platforms did for artist today and the cross-over Beyoncé realized early 2024 as the first black woman to top the Country Music charts. 

Following the success of ‘Hound Dog’, there were many covers, most of them very tame by white artists, and answer songs, including one by a young record producer from Memphis named Sam Philips. He scored a big hit with Rufus Thomas singing ‘Bear Cat’, but also almost bankrupting his company due to lawsuits over copyrights (copying the music, changing the lyrics and claiming the copyrights for both). Interesting to learn how a song like this contributed to the professionalization of the music industry and the position and rights of songwriters and artists.

On the negative side, the changes in the (black) music prompted producers like Sam Philips to work not only with black artists, but also with white artists, perhaps at the expense of the former. According to some critics. He was accused of dropping colored artists tin favor of white artists like Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and others. Later Philips stated that it was a business decision, the base for black music was not broad enough due to racial prejudice, there was too little money to be made, he simply followed the money. And after all, ‘Hound Dog’ was written by two white guys, so did he steal a black tune?

Around page 80 Elvis makes an appearance. Starting with a short biography we learn how he made his first recordings singing white and black music. After he made it big with his first hits like ‘That’s All Right Mama’, obvious penchant for blues-based material and crossing musical and racial borders, some promotors still billed him as a country star, in an effort to increase ticket sales with white community. And in a deeper sense, because they could not process the concept of a white performer so successfully blurring the lines between white and black music. Society wasn’t ready.

Here we see Elvis make the reverse movement that Big Mama Thornton made and Wynne creates a nice bridge in the story by connecting these two artists with a different gender and color.

The story of Elvis picking up ‘Hound Dog’ is interesting too. During his first failed 1956 stint in Las Vegas, he saw Freddie Bell and the Bellboys performing a sanitized and comedic rendition of Thornton’s hit. Obviously aware of Big Mama Thornton’s version, he "copied" Bell's version and lyrics, but recorded it like only he could. With the help of DJ’s fantastic drums, made the song his own. "An odd but explosive mix of black and white sensibilities, just like Rock and Roll itself" as Wynne puts it. 

Elvis’ version of ‘Hound Dog’ made a very different impact than Big Mama Thornton’s version. In a world where Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Pat Boone, Perry Como - who said, “when I hear ‘Hound Dog’ I vomit a little” - and Frank Sinatra were the popular performers, Elvis hit the scene like lightning. Where the beforementioned artists recorded watered down versions of black hits, the hip-shaking, gyrating kid from Mississippi shook up the showbiz world in a way no one else ever had. 

It was not so much Elvis’ recording of the song that made an impact, it was the way he performed it on television, especially his frantic, bump and grind sexually charged delivery on the Milton Berle Show. No-one, including Scotty Moore, Bill Black and DJ Fontana saw that version coming on a Tuesday night on national TV. When Elvis got down and dirty, it was “each man for himself” according to the drummer. 

The June 5th 1956 performance caused a massive stir. TV critics, public school teachers, priests, ministers and terrified parents all railed out against this menace to the world’s youth. The youth, they loved it. Elvis and the song came at an age when society changed an perhaps polarized, this music brought them together. ‘Hound Dog’ became the anthem of Rock and Roll, the anthem of a new generation. It contributed to the emancipation of a generation of black and white youngsters.

And after a few attempts to show him “from the waste up” - which didn’t help - TV viewers knew what to expect and the controversy died a little, but his name and music had been cementing his reputation as a super star with a seal of approval from Ed Sullivan after his last TV appearance. 


In this entertaining and insightful book, Wynne uses the classic Rock and Roll anthem ‘Hound Dog’ as talking piece for the change in the American values, culture and society in the fifties. I learned quite a few things, helping me to understand the context of the fifties and Elvis' early years a little better.

By connecting the versions of Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley - linking them through a mediocre Vegas Lounge act, that had made a comedy version of Thornton’s blues classic - he struck a bridge between the black and white sides of this important story. 

‘Hound Dog’ is an enduring statement for the multiculturalism and emancipation of the American society. The fact that it took another 70 years for the first female black singer to top the (white) Country Music charts (‘Texas’ Hold ‘M’ by Beyoncé) illustrates that this tale isn’t finished yet … which makes this book even more relevant, not only for the fans of black music, Big Mama Thornton or Elvis, but for all of us. 

The book is available from the >>> LSU Press website and from >>>Amazon.