In August, all the way back in TMFW 100, I wrote about "answer songs" and teased in Bonus Fact 1.5 that "[t]here is more to come on answer songs - including the song that inspired some of the most famous ones - in a future TMFW." That future is now.
This past weekend, my family took a road trip to Graceland, and to Sun Studios, in Memphis. There are perhaps unlimited candidates for TMFW entries coming out of Memphis, but today's is one that nicely overlays Elvis and Sun. It's the story of "Hound Dog" and one of its answer songs "Bear Cat," and how the latter almost undid Sun Studios before it ever took off.
For most of my life - defined in this case as birth up to a few months ago - I assumed that Elvis Presley's breakout hit "Hound Dog" was "his" song (that is, that he popularized the tune.) But in fact, in four short years from its first recording in 1952 to Elvis' version in 1956, "Hound Dog" made a long and interesting story for itself.
The story of "Hound Dog" starts with the odd combination of then-still-teenaged songwriters Leiber and Stoller and the 300+ pound blues singer Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton. Leiber and Stoller had written only two recorded songs together at that point, but they were known to the R&B bandleader/Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Johnny Otis. Otis was working for Peacock Records, who had signed Big Mama but thus far found no success with her.
Otis thought that maybe Leiber and Stoller could write something that suited Big Mama's style, and brought them to his house to watch her rehearse some songs. They were struck by the power of her voice and her intimidating presence, and wrote "Hound Dog" for her that same night. They went to the studio the next day, taught the song to Thornton, and recorded it (in only two takes) before the day was through. The song went from concept to tape in one day.
Thornton's recording of the song is a blues lament; in her version, the "hound dog" is a man who hangs around the singer hoping to get [insert here - love, money, sex] without giving much in return. Thornton tells the hound dog that "you can wag your tail, but I ain't gonna feed you no more." Interspersed with "blues talk" over the instrumental breaks - Thornton commands "now wag your tail" and "awww, get it" - the song has a naturally subversive sound. Big Mama's recording on "Hound Dog" was released in March, 1953, and was an instant hit. It reached #1 on the R&B Charts and stayed there for 7 weeks.
As was the tradition of the time, "Hound Dog" inspired a number of covers. Within just a couple of months, there were covers by Little Esther (on Federal), Jack Turner and his Granger County Gang (on RCA Victor), Billy Starr (on Imperial), Eddie Hazelwood, child actress Betsy Gay, and Tommy Duncan and the Miller Brothers (all on Intro, which released the three different versions as consecutive singles), and Cleve Jackson & his Hound Dogs (on Herald). And the next year, Frank Motley and his Motley Crew released "New Hound Dog" (on Big Town), an uptempo jive cover.
In addition to the straight covers, "Hound Dog" inspired several "answer songs," too. Roy Brown did "Mr. Hound Dog's in Town" (on King), which tells the story from the hound dog's perspective. Chuck Higgins and his Mellotones did "Real Gone Hound Dog" (on Combo), which did the same thing. Charlie Gore and Louis Innis did "(You Ain't Nothin' But a Female) Hound Dog" (on King), which flips genders and portrays the hound dog as someone who wants to put a collar on the singer. Jimmie Wilson did "Call Me a Hound Dog" (on Big Town), which boasted that the hound dog had "found himself a home" and "got all the meat [he] want[s], [so he] don't have to gnaw your bone." John Brim and blues harmonica player Little Walter did "Rattlesnake" (on Checker), which...well, I listened a few times and I'm still not sure what that one is about.
So within a year of "Hound Dog"'s release, and still two years from Elvis recording it, it was a #1 hit and had inspired at least 8 covers and 5 answer songs, spread across 9 different labels. That's amazing, and we aren't even to the TMFW yet.
Here it is: one of the very first "Hound Dog" answer songs was "Bear Cat," recorded by a Memphis DJ named Rufus Thomas for Sun Records, with lyrics written by Sun founder Sam Phillips. Recorded and released within two weeks of Big Mama Thornton's original, the song opens "you know what you said about me, don't you woman? Well...," and then it launches into a rejoinder of the "Hound Dog" singer that turns the insults right back at her. "Bear Cat" was only Sun's eighth single, and it was its first big chart hit, reaching #3 on the R&B charts.
Unfortunately for Sam Phillips and Sun, Big Mama Thornton's label Peacock was run by Don Robey, who was infamously aggressive about protecting his business interests. Though it was common at the time for answer songs to flood the market in the wake of a big hit, it was also standard procedure for the label of those songs to pay some modest royalty or license to the original publisher in recognition of the source material. Phillips and Sun chose not to do so; in fact, Phillips claimed sole songwriting credit on "Bear Cat." Robey didn't like that and threatened to sue if Sun didn't license "Hound Dog" from Peacock and its publisher. When Sun refused, he carried through on his promise and sued Sun/Phillips for copyright infringement. It was a sort of "test case" for the legality of answer songs.
Within a month of filing suit, the court sided with Robey and his publisher. Sun was found liable for plagiarism, and was ordered to pay a percentage of profits and court costs. This amounted to around $35,000 (at Sun's studio it says $25,000, but who's counting), and it put a huge financial strain on Phillips and his label. It also established the legal framework for answer songs: the April 24, 1954 issue of Billboard noted "[t]he year 1953 saw an important precedent set in regard to answer tunes … since the 'Hound Dog' decision, few record firms have attempted to 'answer' smash hits by other companies by using the same tune with different lyrics."
Less than a month after the "Bear Cat" legal decision, in August 1953 an unknown truck driver named Elvis Presley cut his first demo at Sun Studios. A year later, in July 1954 his song "That's All Right" launched his career. Elvis was still signed to Sun in November, 1955, when RCA records made an offer to buy out his contract. Still heavily in debt (due in part to the "Bear Cat" disaster), Phillips let him go for $35,000.
The rest is of course history, including the delicious irony that one of Elvis' first singles with RCA - and still his biggest selling ever - was a 1956 cover of what was by then a well-traveled song: "Hound Dog."
BONUS FACT/OBSERVATION: Today's story makes it much easier to understand the "concern" in the 1950s that Elvis was bringing "black music" to mainstream pop audiences. In the case of "Hound Dog," that was quite literally true.
BONUS FACT 2: If you listened to the early recordings of "Hound Dog," you no doubt noticed that Elvis' lyrics are much different and more tame than Big Mama's. That's because Elvis covered an adaptation of Big Mama's song that was done by Freddie Bell and Bellboys in 1955. Bell and his group changed the lyrics of the record to make it more appealing to the mainstream; by the time they were done it was no longer a lament full of thinly-veiled double entendre. Instead, it was mostly a song about a dog. Elvis discovered that version when he was playing a series of shows in Las Vegas at the same time as Freddie Bell and his group. He loved their rendition and (with their permission) added it to his act.
For their part, Leiber and Stoller weren't fans of the watered-down lyrics. Leiber went so far as to say that the change was "inane," that "it doesn't mean anything to me," and that "it ruined the song." Stoller agreed, but noted that "after Elvis's record sold about 7 or 8 million [in] the first release, I began to see some merit in it."
BONUS FACT 3.5: The Colonel is probably worthy of a TMFW all by himself, but just in case we never get there you should know that he was not a colonel in the U.S. Army. Though he was in the Army, during his time there he went AWOL and was charged with desertion. His sentence included time in a military prison, from which he emerged with a psychological condition that temporarily put him in a mental hospital and prevented him from further service. He was discharged from the army shortly thereafter.
Parker was given the honorary title of colonel in the Louisiana State Militia as a political favor from Louisiana governor/country music star Jimmie Davis, as a thank you for work Parker did on his political campaign.
BONUS FACT 4: The Lovin' Spoonful had a top-10 hit in 1966 with their song "Nashville Cats." The song, which is a tribute to the musical talent coming out of that city, features a verse that says "[a]nd the record man said every one is a yellow sun record from Nashville." But of course, Sun is not from Nashville. If you have paid any attention to today's entry at all, you know that it is 200 miles southwest, at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. (Thanks to TMFW reader/neighbor Clifton for this one.)
BONUS FACT 5: Later in his life, Sam Phillips sometimes struggled with excess. One notable public display of that tendency was his bizarre/drunken appearance in 1986 on Late Night with David Letterman. Like he did with other famous interviews gone bad, Letterman salvages the appearance beautifully.
FURTHER RESOURCES: The Biography channel did a show called "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock n' Roll." You can watch it in two parts here: one, two. And just last month a book of the same name was released. It has been well-reviewed so far.