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YouTube Gold: Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog

Elvis recorded it but could never match the intensity of this version.

Big Mama Thornton
American R&B singer and songwriter Big Mama Thornton (1926 - 1984) in concert, circa 1965.
Photo by Val Wilmer/Redferns/Getty Images

There’s a new Elvis movie out and by all accounts, including that of Priscilla Presley, Austin Butler does a brilliant job.

Presley is a much more complicated figure than a lot of people realize. He grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi in a poor area where segregation was not as strict. So Presley, who was fascinated by Black music from an early age, absorbed as much as he could.

In 1948, the family moved to Memphis and Presley, though still quite young, began to meet local musicians like BB King and Ike Turner and soon began performing himself.

When he first emerged as a star, Presley mostly did bluegrass but soon started to draw on the Black music that had inspired him, recording songs such as Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right Mama and Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog.

What Presley and Thornton did with their versions was dramatically different. Both were arguably early rock and roll, but Thornton’s version was much rawer and closer to the blues than Presley’s slicker version. Her song simmered with tension; his relied on drums to bring that.

However, while both could claim to own this song, and in very different ways, it’s interesting to note that it was written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, two Jewish Americans whose families fled Russia.

Things in America are rarely as simple as people would have you believe.

Hound Dog is the first part of this clip. The second is a tremendous performance of Down Home Shakedown featuring, among other guests, John Lee Hooker.