“We wanted to write something really raunchy,” says Jerry Leiber of the song that became Elvis’s most successful single. In its original incarnation, Leiber says, the song was “about a woman kicking a moocher out of her house. He wasn’t literally a hound dog and he didn’t chase rabbits.” A few years after Big Mama Thornton’s original recording, Vegas lounge act Freddie Bell & The Bellboys did a comedic version of the song. They changed the mooch to a pooch. Elvis loved this version and basically copied it. Leiber says, “The lyric change bothered me, and I wasn’t crazy about Elvis’s version at first. But a couple of years later, it kind of grew on me.”
On June 5, 1956, Elvis caused a national sensation with the hip-shakin’ rendition of “Hound Dog” on The Milton Berle Show. A month later, a supposedly contrite Presley did the song on The Steve Allen Show. Dressed in a tuxedo, with instructions to curb his pelvic movements, he sang to a Basset Hound outfitted in a top hat. “That was Steve Allen’s humor,” Elvis said. “To me, it was about as funny as a crutch.”
“How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?”
Composed by Bob Merrill
Performed by Patti Page
Released 1953 (#1 US)
Bob Merrill never learned to read music or play an instrument, but he could tap out a catchy tune on his toy xylophone. That’s how he wrote hits like “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake,” “Mambo Italiano” and his biggest, “Doggie in the Window.” Inspired partly by an old British music hall number, “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow,” the chart-topper for Patti Page is still the 80-year old singer’s most requested song in concert.
As for Merrill, when he tried to write more legit music, his novelty tune dogged his trail. In 1957 he said, “When producers heard I was the guy who wrote ‘Doggie in the Window’ they wouldn't even listen to my songs." He eventually broke through on Broadway as a lyricist for Funny Girl, writing the hits “People” and “Don’t Rain On My Parade.”
Composed by Bob Dorough & Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Performed by Bob Dorough
“The dog trots freely in the street…” begins this jazzy, finger-snapping tune about a city canine checking out “fish on newsprint and chickens in Chinatown windows.” Jazz pianist and Schoolhouse Rocks! composer Bob Dorough set Beat guru Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem to music. “Often, when jazz and poetry is combined, it’s ‘You blow the blues and I’ll recite my poem,’” says Dorough. “But I wanted to design it a little bit so that I could put the poem across and get the beat a dog makes walking on a city sidewalk.”
Recently championed by Bob Dylan on his XM show, Theme Time Radio, “Dog” is enjoying a resurgence. Dorough, 80, has been getting occasional requests for the ultra-wordy tune at his live gigs. “I can perform it with two weeks notice,” he laughs.
“Snoopy vs. the Red Baron”
Composed by Phil Gernhard & Dick Holler
Performed by The Royal Guardsmen
Released 1966 (#2 US)
What began as “The Red Baron,” a WWI story song by tunesmith Dick Holler, was tweaked for commerciality by producer Phil Gernhard to include two verses about Snoopy’s flying ace fantasies. Gernhard pitched it to teen combo The Royal Guardsmen. After cutting a demo with a military feel and an introductory cry in German (translation: “Let’s sing about the pig-headed dog and the beloved Red Baron”), the band promptly decided they hated the song.
But Gernhard loved it. So much that he landed the Guardsmen a record deal. Three weeks later, the single was soaring like Snoopy’s Sopwith Camel up the charts. While Peanuts author Charles Schulz ended up taking a sizeable cut of the royalties (Gernhard didn’t get permission to use Snoopy), the Guardsmen pushed out a litter of follow-ups—“Snoopy’s Christmas,” “Snoopy for President” and in 2003, “Snoopy vs. Osama”—but never recaptured the glory of the first hit.