“Elvis and The Beatles were the death of music.”
— My parents.
I was always a Beatles man, not Elvis. I remember arguing the Fab Four versus the King with my parochial schoolmate Margaret all the way from St. Joseph’s Elementary to her house, though what the basis for the argument would have been is a mystery to me now. Were we actually arguing the merits of “Here Comes the Sun” versus “Hound Dog” and “Love Me Tender” versus “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”? Or was it more along the lines of “Elvis is cute and he knows how to dance!” (with a hip-shaking demonstration) versus “They float through this dreamland in a yellow submarine, and there’s this weird house with Frankenstein, and there’s this funny little Nowhere Man and the Blue Meanies and they get old and turn into babies and stuff!” I was driven in part I’m sure by mom’s tacit approval of The Beatles. Though she was officially opposed to everything they stood for (see the above quote), I know she secretly liked Paul’s lyrical side since as a piano teacher she never had a problem teaching easy piano versions of “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Margaret had posters on her wall of the young, smoky-gazed Elvis. Since a similar poster of John, Paul, George and Ringo did not grace my own, on devotion points alone I conceded defeat.
On June 5, 1956, when Elvis was a rising star nearing the height of his power, he made a soon-to-be-notorious second appearance on The Milton Berle Show, introducing his version of “Hound Dog,” a song that had recently become his standard closer. Elvis had been refining his performance of “Hound Dog” for two months, testing the reaction of his audience with every move, and honing his delivery to a science. For the first time ever he would be performing without a guitar, Berle’s having convinced Elvis to leave it backstage in order to “let ’em see you, son.”
Elvis started the song at a fast clip leading into a sharp, short solo by guitarist Scotty Moore, and free of a guitar, danced all over, gliding over the floor as he spun his leg opened and closed like a screen door banging in a crazy wind. He then cut the song off midway and restarted it as something near a bump and grind crawl paired with a slow occasionally hip-thrusting dance to match. From the song’s fast start to its hothouse finish, each trademark Elvis leg flip and every shrugging, almost diffident hip gyration was accompanied by screams and amazed laughter from the audience. Milton Berle, “Mr. Television,” loved it, and raced onto the stage, clapping a pleased Elvis on the back and mussing his hair saying, “How about my boy?”
The initial reviews were mostly positive, but eventually the moral backlash kicked in. It’s hard to imagine on this side of the ’60s the level of hysteria that ensued after his appearance. Ben Gross in the Daily News raged, “Elvis… gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos. What amazes me is that Berle and NBC-TV should have permitted this affront.” The Catholic weekly America published a full-length diatribe titled simply “Beware Elvis Presley.” And Ed Sullivan declared Elvis “unfit for family viewing,” swearing he would never allow Elvis on his show.
Elvis protested his innocence, insisting, “I’m not trying to be sexy, it’s just my way of expressing how I feel when I move around.” Whether this was true or not there wasn’t a post-pubescent individual with eyes in his or her head who didn’t know what Elvis’s brief but poignant hip thrusts were all about. Regardless of the intended thrust of his thrusts, there was no doubt that they fucked mightily with the moral zeitgeist of TV Land circa 1956. He insisted that he wasn’t trying to be a rebel, something about which he was genuinely sensitive because of his real concern for his much-adored mother’s feelings. What Elvis didn’t grasp was that in 1956 his simple desire to keep it real was itself a revolutionary act.
How things have changed. Just this month the Supreme Court was debating whether they should strike down all “indecency” rules for primetime. Chief Justice Roberts, the father of two young children, said (in more of a desperate plea than a constitutionally defensible position), “All we are asking for is for a few channels” where parents can be confident their children will not hear profanity or see sex scenes. In its way, Elvis’s appearance on The Milton Berle Show was TV’s gateway drug, the ‘50s sensimilla to today’s TV heroin. One wonders what would happen to the brains of the same critics were Lady Gaga to take Marty McFly’s DeLorean back to 1956 and do her thing on the same show. They would no doubt think they’d died and entered the ninth ring of hell.
Ironically, despite the moral outrage over the song’s performance, “Hound Dog” really isn’t even a paean to sex. Written in 1952 by Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller, two young Jewish kids from Los Angeles with a shared obsession with R&B, it was intended as a musical middle finger to some worthless pond scum who’s done the singer wrong. They’d written it for blues legend Big Mama Thornton, who later described them as a couple of kids with the song “written on the back of a paper bag.” She altered it as she saw fit, made the phrasings her own, and had the members of her band howl like dogs behind her. She recorded the song in early 1953, and it was released in March. Within the first week of its release, based on a rave in Billboard, another singer recorded a country version, and by the year’s end a total of six country recordings of the song had been released. By 1964, 24 recorded versions of the song—including Elvis’—would exist. It was the biggest hit of Big Mama Thornton’s career.
Her version could hardly be more different than Elvis’, a growly rhumba blues that would be completely at home on basically any Tom Waits album from Rain Dogs on. The lyrics—Lieber’s originals—are more straightforwardly bluesy and make more narrative sense. To my taste Thornton’s version is much grittier and more soulful, and has the deeply satisfying feel of being sung with full vitriol to one particular scumbag, as opposed to Elvis’s more impersonally tongue-in-cheek version. In a 1987 interview, Lieber said that the chorus was code for “You ain’t nothin’ but a motherfucker,” and with Thornton’s fiery growl it’s not a difficult substitution in the mind to make.
Elvis would have known Thornton’s original, but he found his pop version during his first time performing in Vegas. Despite the ill fit between his style and the adult, sit-down audience for which he and his band were performing—like Spinal Tap playing for the air force officer’s club—Elvis loved Vegas, blissfully unaware of the central place it would eventually have in his life. He and the band spent their free time seeing other musicians perform around town. He and his band’s favorite was the lounge act for the Sands, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys.
The Bellboys had had a minor hit with their own pop version of “Hound Dog” the year before in 1955. To turn it into a pop song, they had dropped a verse and changed the lyrics—to Lieber’s great annoyance—so that the hound dog in question is no longer “snoopin’ round my door,” but is now “cryin’ all the time” and the phrase “you can wag your tail/but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” was tossed in favor of the rhythmically nimbler if narratively less sensible phrase “you ain’t never caught a rabbit/ and you ain’t no friend o’ mine.” It now served as the Bellboys’ main showstopper, and Elvis his band, drummer D.J. Fontana, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, decided they had to add it to their act. It would quickly become Elvis’ closer for a long time to come.
Lieber and Stoller, ‘50s hipsters to the core, weren’t pleased with the pop direction Freddie and the Bellboys and then Elvis had taken their song. They were dismissive of Elvis’ ability and assumed he was ignorant of his music’s history, probably in nearly exactly the same way I was once dismissive of Justin Bieber. For my part, I assumed Bieber was just some A&R guy’s bubbly commercial product: take cheesy love song, add cute young singer, and stir. Then I humored my daughter, five years old and suffering from, as she then mispronounced it, “Beaver Fever,” and, together with her and my wife, watched the Bieber documentary Never Say Never. While it’s safe to say I’ll never be listening to "Baby " on my way to work, the movie was genuinely fascinating and watching Bieber as a three-year-old playing on his toy drums and then at five on his real set is pretty much a wonder to behold. For Lieber and Stoller, it would be the summer of ’57 when they were hired—largely against their will—to write the songs for Jailhouse Rock, that they finally befriended Elvis and grew to appreciate both his very real talent and his deep love and knowledge of R&B.
A month after the hip shake heard ‘round the world, Elvis was scheduled for a July 1st appearance on The Steve Allen Show. Allen, for the benefit of the more prudish members of his audience, had made some public noise about possibly canceling Elvis’s appearance, but with Elvis at the top of all three charts that existed at the time—R&B, pop and country—there was little chance of that actually happening.
Instead, Allen devised a plan for cleaning Elvis up. The night of the show, Allen introduced “the new Elvis Presley,” one dressed in white tie and tails. He opened with his current pop hit, “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” Then Allen wheeled out an actual female basset hound wearing a small top hat strapped to its head. The hound gazed at the audience with a supremely sad, baleful face, refusing to look at Elvis despite his numerous good-humored attempts to turn her head and sing into her doleful eyes. Elvis remains a good sport, but it’s clear from his body language, from the stunted jerks of his head and shoulders, that he is working fiercely to not burst into his now-notorious hip swivel, like a schoolboy trying to restrain a bobbing knee. In the end, Elvis, a dog lover himself and eventually an owner of many, many dogs as well as a menagerie of other animals, gives the hound a genuine hug, and nuzzles it and kisses it on the neck, probably in sympathy as a fellow sufferer.
That night The Steve Allen Show killed The Ed Sullivan Show in the ratings. Sullivan had repeatedly vowed to never have Elvis on his show, but as J-Biebs would say, never say never. Within two weeks Sullivan caved, eventually signing Presley for not one but three appearances, the first slated for September 9. Sullivan blew off criticisms of his reversal, saying he had been going on hearsay, and about Elvis’s Milton Berle Show appearance he did a complete and unapologetic 180, accusing everyone else of overreacting by saying, “I don’t know why everybody picked on Presley, I thought the whole show was dirty and vulgar.”
On July 2nd, the morning after The Steve Allen Show, Elvis and his band would finally commit “Hound Dog” to vinyl. After 31 takes, they had the full two-minute blast complete with Scotty Moore’s jangly guitar solo (Moore would later refer to it as “ancient psychedelia”) and D.J. Fontana’s trademark machine gun drum attack. That afternoon they recorded “Don’t Be Cruel.” The single of “Hound Dog,” with “Don’t Be Cruel” as the nominal A-side, was released on July 13th and would hit the #1 spot slightly over a month later, on August 18th, where it would remain for a record-breaking 11 weeks, replaced only by his own new single “Love Me Tender” on November 3rd. “Hound Dog” would become Elvis’ best-selling single ever, and in 2004 Rolling Stone would place it as #19 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, the highest rank for any of Elvis’ eleven entries on the list.