Who Was Elvis Presley, the Hound Dog?
Elvis Presley had been performing live for a few years when he booked an appearance on the Steve Allen show. It was 1956 and the mainstream culture was barely able to contain the budding sexuality that his music was bursting with. This was before he was popular, but now 20 years later Elvis is so popular (to this day that Elvis Wigs are a huge seller on Halloween.)
It seems that there was a sense of containment that a lot of the older generations felt towards the new sounds and culture that was developing. Ed Sullivan agreed to have Elvis perform on his show, but only allowed him to be filmed from the waist up. It was understood that showing Elvis’ dance moves and gyrations would mean that Ed Sullivan no longer had a “family” show.
While it seems to us now a relatively tame dancing movement, pelvic gyrations, at that time, were considered very taboo, and totally inappropriate for mass viewing audiences. Parents of teenagers were often horrified at Elvis’ performance style, and Frank Sinatra called it, “a rancid smelling aphrodisiac”.
When Elvis scheduled and appearance on the Steve Allen show in July of 1956, it seemed yet another great opportunity for publicity and advancement of his career. He had been performing Hound Dog for audiences for a while at that point and had perfected his wiggling hips and dance movements. Just the previous month, he had appeared on the Milton Berle show. There, he performed “Hound Dog” to screaming fans and this recording can be found on numerous websites. While the song itself contains no explicit words or anything particularly groundbreaking musically, it was Elvis’ interpretation of it that people found offensive.
The lyrics, originally performed as a blues song by a woman, sing about a lazy good-for-nothing husband who can’t even put food on the table to feed his family. In Elvis’ version the words and music are the same, but adding his dancing to the music and the way his voice bumped and growled over the words suddenly gave it an electrically sexual connotation. The line “they said you was high-classed” which in an earlier version meant the promise of a solid husband who was a stand up citizen, could now be interpreted as in reference to a woman, where high-classed has an immediately sexual meaning.
For his appearance on the Steve Allen show, he participated in a comedy sketch and then appeared in a suit and tails with his hair flatter and more slicked back for a rendition of his famous “Hound Dog” song. Steve Allen was a composer and TV personality who often mocked popular recording artists by reading their lyrics as poems.
There are a lot of popular music songs that will seem nonsense when read as poems, but when sung, the intention is clear. When he had Elvis on as a guest performer, he not only had him dress up much more than was appropriate for his performance, but he had a live basset hound rolled out for Elvis to sing to. While some parents and conservative types were appeased and even entertained by this scenario, Elvis himself was humiliated. It was clear that the real version of “Hound Dog” required more of a hipster style of dress, and a high pompadour which got shaken out by enthusiastic dancing and full gyrations of the hips.