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The Long, Crazy, Never-Ending Story of ‘Hound Dog’

In 2004, Rolling Stone launched its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. Tabulated from a massive vote that had artists, industry figures, and critics weighing in, the list has been a source of conversation, inspiration, and controversy for two decades. It’s one of the most popular, influential — and argued-over— features the magazine has ever done.

So we set out to make it even bigger, better, and fresher. In 2021, we completely overhauled our 500 Songs list, with a whole new batch of voters from all over the music map. Our new podcast, Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs, takes a closer look at the entries from our list. Made in partnership with iHeart, Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs finds hosts and Rolling Stone staffers Rob Sheffield and Brittany Spanos discussing a new song each week, delving into its history and impact with the help of a special guest — including fellow RS colleagues, producers, and the artists themselves. It’s our celebration of the greatest songs ever made — and a breakdown of what makes them so great.

This week, Brittany and Rob look at one of the longest, craziest stories in pop music: the never-ending saga of “Hound Dog.” Big Mama Thornton had a massive hit in 1952 with this R&B belter, the first hit from the legendary writing team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. Her classic original hit comes in at #318 on the list. But “Hound Dog” became a cultural phenomenon, inspiring countless cover versions, answer songs, rewrites and sequels, in blues, pop, and country. The song took on a life of its own.

Elvis Presley did another classic version of “Hound Dog” in 1956. But he wasn’t covering the Big Mama Thornton song. These were two different tunes with the same title — the only thing they had in common was the opening line, “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog.” The lyrics, chords, rhythm, structure are totally different. That’s because Elvis was covering the Vegas lounge act Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. They wrote their own “Hound Dog,” which Elvis heard when they opened for him on the Strip.

The most famous hook — “You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine” — doesn’t even appear in any versions before Bell. Lieber and Stoller never wrote that line — and they hated it. Lyricist Lieber spent the rest of his life complaining about the new words, especially “that rabbit business.” Presley’s version added new twists like the massive drumroll into the chorus, part of the song’s legacy ever since.

In our episode, Brittany and Rob break down the secret history of “Hound Dog”: Big Mama Thornton, Elvis, the whole ongoing Extended “Hound Dog” Universe. Our brilliant Rolling Stone colleague Angie Martoccio joins us to look at the song and its complex cultural afterlife. We celebrate the greatness of Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, and the incredible power of her “Hound Dog.” It was her only hit, but we discuss why it isn’t even necessarily her best song.

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Yet there’s no other story in music history like “Hound Dog,” a song that keeps changing over the years, more than 70 years after it first became a hit. We look at how “Hound Dog” keeps on inspiring sequels, from Jimi Hendrix to Doja Cat. As soon as it came out, it kept getting rewritten, in ways Lieber and Stoller couldn’t control. Rufus Thomas called his version “Bear Cat.”] Roy Brown called his “Mr. Hound Dog’s In Town.” It inspired jazzmen. It inspired jazzmen. The Geto Boys turned it into the gangsta classic “You Ain’t Nothin’” (sampling the Elvis version). “Hound Dog” is a story that people go on telling and rewriting forever, with no end in sight.

In the newest version of the Rolling Stone 500 Songs list, with so many recent songs joining the mix, all the great Fifties rock & roll pioneers unfortunately took a hit. Legends like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and Sam Cooke all had classic songs that fell off the list, as did Fifties styles like doo-wop, rockabilly, and the blues. But Big Mama Thornton made the list because “Hound Dog” just keeps on resonating. Check out the episode above, on iHeart, or wherever you get your podcasts, and look for new episodes every Wednesday.

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