In the summer of 1952, Johnny Otis invited teenage songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to his home to meet 25-year-old powerhouse blues vocalist Willie Mae Thornton, who earned the nickname “Big Mama” for her robust voice and confident stage presence.
Leiber recalled: “We saw Big Mama and she knocked me cold. She looked like the biggest, baddest, saltiest chick you would ever see. And she was mean, a ‘lady bear,’ as they used to call ’em.”
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote “Hound Dog” specifically to fit Big Mama’s badass persona. The song was originally written to be sung by a woman who kicks out the metaphorical dog in her life. Leiber said he wrote the song as a southern blues lament about a woman throwing a playboy out of her house and her life. He presented it to Big Mama who snatched the song out of his hand and demanded: “Is this my hit?”.
Big Mama’s “Hound Dog” earned her a #1 spot on the charts in 1953 and remained in the #1 spot on the R&B chart for several weeks. The record went on to sell half a million copies and her version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in February 2013. The song became the biggest hit of her career and helped shape the future of rock and roll, although she never saw monetary success from the song.
Her hit became incredibly overshadowed when in 1956 Elvis Presley released his version of “Hound Dog”, which eventually was a platinum seller and one of his signature songs. His version was a little more rock and roll and Elvis had changed up and added a few of the verses. Elvis only wanted to cover the song after watching a band called Freddie Ball and the Bellboys perform a satirical cover of the song in Vegas lounge.
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