Elvis Presley: inspiration, not theft

26 Mar 2016

A constant theme of the forthcoming book is the fragile nature of inspiration versus theft, and one of the prime examples of this is the furore over Elvis' version of "Hound Dog".

 

For decades, uninformed critics have proclaimed that Elvis stole Big Mama Thornton's hit and, as such, stole from black culture.

 

The most obvious points to make here are that
(a)  "Hound Dog" was not written by Thornton but by two white Jewish boys from Los Angeles, and
(b) Elvis recorded it in July 1956, fully three years after Thornton's original hit had slipped from the r&b charts.

 

Thornton lost not one cent by Elvis recording it, and the composers (Lieber & Stoller) literally made millions of dollars. In fact, bearing in mind how many Elvis fans subsequently purchased Big Mama's version out of curiosity, it's likely she benefitted hugely from Elvis' cover.

 

Elvis knew and loved the original record but he'd also heard a parody by Freddie Bell in Las Vegas and instantly realised  what a great show-closer it could be.

 

Elvis' version was recorded in New York on 2nd July 1956, the day after he was obliged to literally perform the song to an actual dog on the Steve Allen TV show .

 

Presley, for the first time in his career, took complete control of the recording session and demanded thirty-one takes of this track, the better to fully express his frustration and anger over the way he'd been presented on television.

 

This is Dylan's "Positively Fourth Street" a decade early ("You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend") and Presley transforms the slow sly blues into a machine-gun explosion of sexual fury and excitement.

 

It was the biggest selling single of the 1950s and remained in Elvis' set-list for the rest of his career.

 

The video shows photographs from the actual recording session by the incomparable Albert Wertheimer and a short clip of his genre-defining Milton Berle TV performance of the song from 5th June 1956.

 

This, my friends, is what all the fuss was about. Clean your ears, throw out your prejudices and listen anew to the young genius.

 

 

 

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