This week marks the anniversary of the date that Big Mama Thornton first recorded the iconic single ‘Hound Dog’ in 1952. The song is widely regarded as one of the most iconic tracks in rock and roll history. Since Thornton’s original was put to wax, the song has been covered well over 250 times. In this sense, the blues staple can be considered to be in the same category as what ‘Greensleeves’ is to folk: a key standard, setting out its defining features.
The chances are that many of you will not have even heard of Big Mama Thornton, or the fact that she was the first artist to perform the now-iconic track. Written by the duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller for Thornton, it is quite telling that Elvis Presley was the one who popularised the song in 1956. His version is often thought of as being the original, which is not the case.
In 1999, Rick Kennedy and Randy MacNutt perfectly captured the impact Thornton’s original had on music. They argued that it helped to “spur the evolution of Black R&B into rock music”. The transformative effect of this cross-pollination cannot be underestimated.
The irony of the song is that when Thornton initially sang it, she did so in the form of a ballad. However, Leiber and Stoller believed that the song should be more up-tempo, as they had forged it specifically “to suit her personality—brusque and badass”. Thus, Leiber sang it, accompanied by Stoller on the piano, conveying to Thornton how they thought it should be performed.
Luckily Thornton agreed, and the song the trio recorded the number became one of the most important hits ever captured. The track is so influential that Maureen Mahon, a professor of music at New York University, claimed that the original is “an important (part of the) beginning of rock and roll, especially in its use of the guitar as the key instrument”. The song would reach number one on the R&B chart and be popularised in the appropriate musical community. However, the song remained relatively unknown in the mainstream until Elvis Presley put his own spin on it.
What made Elvis’ version so popular and Thornton’s not? After all, one would wager that Thornton’s is the best version out of all of them, a swaggering, sexualised number that was just as groundbreaking lyrically as it was musically. So why then does the ‘King of Rock and Roll’ still take all the plaudits?
Unfortunately, the reasons are all too familiar. Firstly, we need to cast our mind’s back to the era, 1950s America. Thornton, being the larger-than-life Black woman that she was, was clearly up against it in her fight for success, the measure of which was relevant to the time. Thornton’s original preceded the desegregation of schools by a year, and Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X wouldn’t truly make their voices of civil rights protest heard until the ’60s.
This gives a damning indictment of the time. Even now, race relations are still fraught in places in America, but back then, African-Americans were definitively categorised as second-class citizens. Segregation and Jim Crow were the de facto and de jure rulers of the land. Considering that, back then, women were also under the heel of their male peers, Thornton’s status, just by virtue of existing, was one marked by a remarkably uneven playing field.
In fact, Gayle Wald, professor of American studies at George Washington University, told the Washington Post in February 2021 that she believes that race and gender are the two reasons that Elvis shot to mega-stardom with ‘Hound Dog’ and Thornton did not. After all, to be a white man in America back then was to give you an unfair advantage over your peers. In Elvis’ case, he had access to the mainstream markets, not just consigned to the R&B chart.
Wald asserted: “Popular music history is filled with examples of Black women being pushed to the margins,” she said, before adding: “The first (vocal) blues songs that were ever recorded (in the 1910s), were recorded by white singers. It wasn’t until 1920, when Mamie Smith put out ‘Crazy Blues,’ that a Black woman actually was on record singing a blues song. Even though blues was an African American art form.”
Wald succinctly concludes: “(Thornton) belongs in that story… Because of the way race works in the United States, Elvis got accolades for ‘Hound Dog’,” Wald maintains. “He received exposure and celebrity and praise for it.” Mahon even backs this point up by claiming that Elvis took some of his signature persona from Thornton: “I think he was getting that attitude from a singer like Big Mama Thornton, who was projecting that in her song”.
Subsequently, Elvis‘ version is peculiar as it amounts to both a whitewashed and a “blackfished” version of the original, and the difference between them is stark. In rhythm, tempo and lyrically, this can be observed. If we were to extend this sentiment, one would posit that the majority of the R&B explosion of the ’60s by middle-class white kids was also an early example of “whitewashing”, but that is a story for another day. This also makes Eric Clapton’s racist outbursts seem wickedly ironic.
This got us wondering, what other songs originally by Black artists were taken by white artists and popularised? You’ll be surprised to find out that some of your favourite hits are not, in fact, originals. Whilst this may not be down to any overt sense of racial prejudice, it is important in reflecting the unfair configuration of society in days gone by.
Five famous examples of whitewashing of Black music:
‘Whole Lotta Love’ – Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon vs. Led Zeppelin
‘Whole Lotta Love’ is one of Led Zeppelin‘s most iconic tracks, and it was released globally in 1969 to widespread acclaim. It became the band’s first hit in the US and was swiftly certified gold. This was the track that truly catapulted the four long-haired rockers into the collective consciousness of the American mainstream.
It is widely regarded as having one of the best guitar riffs of all time, and one of guitarist Jimmy Page’s best moments. However, lyrically, the song is not original at all. In fact, people cottoned on to the theft quite quickly as similarities were noticed between Zeppelin’s track and the lyrics to the 1962 song by Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, ‘You Need Love’. The lyrics were so similar to the track by the African-American blues legends that a lawsuit was settled out of court in 1985, with Zeppelin paying an undisclosed fee to its creators.
In a 1990 interview with Musician, Robert Plant came clean about the whole sorry affair: “Page’s riff was Page’s riff. It was there before anything else. I just thought, ‘well, what am I going to sing?’ That was it, a nick. Now happily paid for. At the time, there was a lot of conversation about what to do. It was decided that it was so far away in time and influence that…well, you only get caught when you’re successful. That’s the game.”
‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ – The Supremes vs. Phil Collins
Originally recorded and released in 1966 by Motown legends the Supremes, ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ was written by the legendary label writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland. Widely regarded as a quintessential soul classic, featuring iconic lead vocals from Diana Ross, it is not hard to understand why. It reached number five in the UK singles chart upon release. However, another act would re-record the hit sixteen years later, and make it a global smash hit.
In 1983, Phil Collins’ version spent two weeks at number one on the UK chart. Showing absolutely no respect for the original, in 1986, the hubristic imp behind the Cadbury’s Gorilla said: “The idea of doing ‘Can’t Hurry Love’ was to see if Hugh Padgham and I could duplicate that Sixties sound. It’s very difficult today because most recording facilities are so much more sophisticated than they were back then.
“It’s therefore hard to make the drums sound as rough as they did on the original. That’s what we were going after, a remake, not an interpretation, but a remake.”
‘Louie Louie’ – Richard Berry vs. The Kingsmen
As with ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Louie Louie’ is a rock ‘n’ roll staple, first written by an African-American, only to be subsequently popularised by all-white garage-rockers the Kingsmen. Written by Richard Berry in 1955, the Portland, Oregon group took the laid back original and turned it into the raucous, guitar-centric number that we all know today. The Kingsmen’s version is so popular that it has been covered by everyone from Motorhead to Black Flag.
The thing about this entry is that at the time of the Kingsmen’s release in 1963, Berry had no control over the song. In 1959, he sold all his rights to it to Flip Records for a measly $750 after a string of unsuccessful releases left him in the financial red.
‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ – Chucky Berry vs. The Beach Boys
Possibly the most famous example on the list, the Beach Boys’ iconic 1963 hit is actually a rewritten version of Chuck Berry’s 1958 classic, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’. However, the major difference is that the music was set to different lyrics penned by Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson.
In 2004, Wilson remembered: “I was going with a girl called Judy Bowles, and her brother Jimmy was a surfer. He knew all the surfing spots. I started humming the melody to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and I got fascinated with the fact of doing it, and I thought to myself, ‘God! What about trying to put surf lyrics to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’s melody? The concept was about, ‘They are doing this in this city, and they’re doing that in that city’ So I said to Jimmy, ‘Hey Jimmy, I want to do a song mentioning all the surf spots.’ So he gave me a list.”
This entry is also a little different, as the Beach Boys track was intended as a homage to Berry, rather than a direct rip-off, even if they did initially try to get away with not crediting him upon release in 1963. After pressure from Berry’s publisher, by 1966 the mistake was amended, and Berry and Wilson were listed as authors. Although there existed tensions with Berry at the time, Carl Wilson claimed in 1980 that the Beach Boys “ran into Chuck Berry in Copenhagen and he told us he loves ‘Surfin’ U.S.A'”.
Perhaps Berry had realised that having the Beach Boys as a conduit for earning money was not a bad thing after all. Still, it is amazing what people will try to get away with. The Beach Boys initial efforts in subversion go one step further than Robert Plant’s, as mentioned previously.
‘Tutti Frutti’ – Little Richard vs. Pat Boone
This 1955 classic is Little Richard’s most iconic opus. The lyric “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom!” is one of the most instantly recognisable in the whole of music history. Featuring Richard’s groundbreaking driving sound and wild lyrics, ‘Tutti Frutti‘ is another track by a Black artist that set the standard for the future of rock ‘n’ roll.
As was customary for the times, Little Richard’s version would be covered and sanitised for by a white artist and gain mainstream success. Pat Boone took Richard’s song and sent it higher than its original version. In February 1956, Boone reached number 12 on the US Chart, whilst Little Richard reached only number 21.
Boone would later say it “didn’t make sense” to him to release a version, but claimed he was pressured into it by record label executives, who knew it would make an economic killing.
In 1984, the Washington Post quoted Little Richard weighing in on the track: “They didn’t want me to be in the white guys’ way,” he said. “I felt I was pushed into a rhythm and blues corner to keep out of rockers’ way, because that’s where the money is. When ‘Tutti Frutti; came out they needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids. The white kids would have Pat Boone upon the dresser and me in the drawer ’cause they liked my version better, but the families didn’t want me because of the image that I was projecting.”
This insidious racism comes as no surprise, given some of the other points we have discussed previously in this article. White record executives cynically knew the financial potential of Black artists, who were pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll, but didn’t want to give them credit. Instead, they chose to steal their ideas and make all the money. If that is not the most damning indictment of how deeply embedded racism was in music at the time, we don’t know what is.
Little Richard, just like Big Mama Thornton, was a pioneer, blocked by racial barriers. However, they both continue to live on through their groundbreaking work and the internet revealing the truth. Ultimately, Richard’s version is so much better than Boone’s. It possesses energy and character, something the whitewashed cover did not.