Memphis, TN – If you just took the legend at face value, you could easily assume that Elvis Presley was tuned in to the Red Hot And Blue radio show one night, heard Dewey Phillips play Big Mama Thornton's Hound Dog, and decided he would record it someday. I'm sure Phillips played it, and I'm sure Elvis heard it, but what led Presley to add the song to his live repertoire had more to do with his biggest flop of 1956 than his love for the blues.
Looking back, Elvis and Las Vegas seem to have been made for each other. You can hardly hear the strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra without picturing the King of Rock and Roll bounding onto stage at the Hilton, cape flying, to belt out See See Rider for those who streamed in from the desert heat. But Elvis' first Las Vegas engagement was more lukewarm than white-hot.
Hastily arranged, at least by Colonel Tom Parker's standards, Elvis and his band were slated to appear with the Freddie Martin orchestra for two weeks in the Venus Room of the New Frontier Hotel. About the only stranger concert pairing I could think of would be when Jimi Hendrix opened for The Monkees. Following weeks of scream-powered teen adulation, when the band hit the stage to close the first night's show, they heard something they hadn't heard in months... themselves playing. It was, as many an act has said while tugging a too-tight collar, a tough room. To his credit, Elvis took the challenge in stride, and sought to win over the indifferent audience.
Meanwhile, he spent some quality off-stage hours either poolside with the babes, careening down the tracks on the amusement park rides, or soaking up the shows on the strip: The Four Lads, Liberace, Johnny Ray, and at the Sands, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. It was this group's treatment of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's Hound Dog that inspired Elvis to add it to the act. Elvis finished the two weeks, and had at least an afternoon of vindication when The New Frontier put on a teenage matinee, and the adoring masses set off a frenzy of fondness that cost him a shirt, shredded for the sake of souvenirs.
Hound Dog was a great addition to the stage show, and wowed the audiences. Elvis would play it up big with a slowed down "bump-and-grind" ending. Before he ever recorded the song, he featured it on his TV appearances on The Milton Berle Show and The Steve Allen Show, where Presley performed in tuxedo, singing to a basset hound. Producer Steve Sholes and Colonel Parker knew Hound Dog would be a smash record, but they actually had to talk Elvis into recording it. His publishers, Hill & Range, also had to do a sales job to convince Leiber and Stoller to give up part of their publishing, a standard demand Elvis management would ask of writers. It would mean certain cash for the writers, but they would give up full control of their songs.
The deal struck, the artist persuaded, recording took place July 2, 1956, at RCA's New York studios. Elvis sought perfection in his performance, and long after the button-pushers in the booth were satisfied, he finally found the gem in the rough on take 31.
Flying off the shelves at a frightening pace, in the first week it sold a million copies. By August, it hit the number one chart position, and would stay there for 11 weeks. As big a smash as Hound Dog was, it actually shared the top spot for all those weeks. Next time, how Elvis rode an Otis to the top.
If you go dig back in the Sun Records archives, you'll find single number 181; it was recorded in 1953. Rufus Thomas, WDIA, Memphis DJ recorded the answer to Hound Dog, Bear Cat. Rufus went on to record for both the Sun and Stax record labels.