Musicians and dogs are a lot alike. Both operate on instinct and feeling. Both have finely tuned ears that can pick up good and bad vibrations. And both make the world a better place by helping others feel a little less lonely.
With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that there’d be mutual appreciation of the musical kind. While dogs compose their own spontaneous tunes—“I Haven’t Seen You in Forever!” and “Scratch My Chin Again” are two favorites—musicians have been a little more considered in their creations over the years.
The story of dogs in popular music began in 1853, when American songwriter Stephen Foster was given a beautiful English Setter, whom he named Tray. Foster so loved his pal that he wrote “Old Dog Tray,” a sentimental ode that became the blueprint for bow-wow ballads from then on.
In the early 20th century, dogs were roving through Tin Pan Alley in hits such as “Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” and “Fido Is a Hot Dog Now ,” a 1914 song about a naughty pooch who ends up in Hell.
But the modern era of pup pop didn’t begin until the mid-’50s when Patti Page wondered about the price of the doggie in the window and Elvis Presley complained about a hound dog on a cryin’ jag. Since then, artists from the Beatles to Neil Young to Red Hot Chili Peppers have done the dog. To celebrate this genre, here are the stories behind ten purebred faves.
“Martha My Dear ”
Composed by John Lennon & Paul McCartney
Performed by The Beatles
One afternoon in 1968, Paul McCartney was at the piano, when out tumbled a melody with the phrase “Martha my dear” attached. It made sense, as Paul’s three-year-old English Sheepdog Martha loved music and often lay at her master’s feet while he was composing. McCartney told biographer Barry Miles, “You can read anything you like into it, but really it’s just me singing to my dog.”
Later, McCartney revised his take on “Martha,” calling it a song about “a muse.”
“I mean, I’m not really speaking to Martha. It’s a communication of affection but in a slightly abstract way—‘You silly girl, look what you’ve done.’ Whereas it would appear to anybody else to be a song to a girl called Martha, it’s actually a dog. And our relationship was platonic, believe me,” he added with a chuckle.
Composed by Henry Gross
Performed by Henry Gross
Released 1976 (#6 US)
“Having an Irish Setter is like marrying a Victoria’s Secret model,” laughs Henry Gross. “It’s going to be rough from day one, because she knows she’s gorgeous.”
Shannon came into Gross’s life via his marriage in the mid-’70s, about the same time he was opening tours for the Beach Boys. Gross and Carl Wilson bonded over Irish Setters, as Wilson’s had recently been killed by a car.
Back home in New York, with Shannon nearby, Gross thought about Carl “and the song just kind of wrote itself.”
“I knew the second I wrote it there was something special about it,” he says.
To this day, Gross still gets letters from fans who find solace in the tender-hearted song. “Whenever somebody loses a dog, they hit henrygross.com ,” he says. “I just e-mailed a guy who lost a dog—and this may sound corny, but I said, ‘Whenever a great dog dies, I see it as an opportunity to save another poor dog, to share your love with a soul nobody wants.”
“Hound Dog ”
Composed by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Performed by Elvis Presley
Released 1956 (#1 US)
“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.
“Me and My Arrow ”
Composed by Harry Nilsson
Performed by Harry Nilsson
Released 1971 (#34 US)
Nilsson had explored the boy-and-his-dog theme in “The Puppy Song,” a 1969 hit for Mary Hopkin. But he perfected it on this lump-in-the-throat nursery rhyme. It was a centerpiece for his original animated musical, The Point, which Nilsson later confessed was born out of an acid trip. “I looked at the trees and realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to points. I thought, ‘Everything has a point.’”
Everything except round-headed Oblio, who is banished to the pointless forest along with his faithful Arrow.
Nilsson said of the song, “It’s about a dog, your alter ego. ‘Straighter than narrow.’ That means narrow-minded, because the people in the story are prejudiced. Patricia Hearst named her dog Arrow. I got a kick out of that when I first heard it. Since then a lot of people have named their dogs Arrow.”
“Old Shep ”
Composed by Red Foley & Willis Arthur
Performed by Red Foley
Growing up in Depression-era rural Kentucky, Red Foley was inseparable from his best friend Hoover, a German Shepherd. As this tearjerker tribute says, the dog once helped save the boy from drowning. Sadly, unlike Shep, Hoover never reached old age, as he was poisoned by one of Foley’s neighbors.
When Red performed the song, grown men were known to weep when he reached the line about how Shep “laid his old head on my knee.”
In 1945, a 10-year old Elvis Presley made his first public appearance, singing “Old Shep” at the Alabama State Fair and winning a $5 prize.
Covered by many artists, including Johnny Cash and Alabama, this classic ballad was also the indirect inspiration for Old Yeller.
“Everything Reminds Me of My Dog ”
Composed by Jane Siberry
Performed by Jane Siberry
Telephones, taxi cabs, Albert Einstein—these are a few of the things that remind Siberry of her dog in this whimsical romp. The songstress’s muse was big black mutt with the unlikely name of Crimson. During Jane’s daily travels around Toronto, she realized that what animal activist Roger Caras once said was true: “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”
“I learned a lot from my dog,” Siberry says. “I never would’ve been so tuned in to the minute nuances of the everyday light, except I had to walk him all the time. Now that I don’t have a dog, I notice how much less connected I am with the outdoor world.”
“Old King ”
Composed by Neil Young
Performed by Neil Young
Introducing this song in concert, Neil Young tells how he once lost his dog, a Bluetick Hound named Elvis, while on tour.
When Young’s bus pulled off the highway for a pit stop, Elvis hit the ground running, in search of olfactory pleasures. Young quickly lost sight of him. Then there was a burst of drenching rain.
Young knew that even with his super-sniffing nose, Elvis wouldn’t be able to find his way back. A search was fruitless. Neil had to make the next gig, but couldn’t bear to leave the dog behind. So he put down his old “lucky shirt” and a bowl of chow by the side of the road. Once he reached the venue, he sent a roadie back to the spot, and there was Elvis, ready and wagging.