James Beaty: RAMBLIN' ROUND: 'Don't Be Cruel' about this 'Hound Dog'

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Jul. 25—I've previously written about how the song "Blue" by LeeAnn Rimes had originally been designated as the B-side of the song's single release, until radio deejays heard it and clamored for it to become the A-side instead.

Executives at Rimes' then-record label Curb heard the clamor apparently much better than they had heard Rimes' fantastic rendition of "Blue" and wisely relegated the song, which became a career-making hit for Rimes, to the single's A-side — basically the song the recording company urged deejays to play over the radio in hopes of making it a hit.

Those Curb Records execs weren't the only ones to have ever designated a truly outstanding rendition of a song as the B-side of a recording. Instead, they were just a few more bricks in the wall of record execs who've gotten it wrong basically ever since the whole platter-spinning concept began.

In the rock era, one can start with the RCA Victor release of Elvis Presley's double-sided 1956 hit record of "Hound Dog" and "Don't be Cruel." RCA execs originally dubbed "Don't Be Cruel" as the A-side, with "Hound Dog" relegated to the back of the record. While both sides became huge hits for Elvis, fans immediately took to "Hound Dog," the song originally written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller four years earlier for Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, which became a huge rhythm and blues hit for her.

It's unlikely Elvis' teenaged fans had heard her 1952 recording by the time Elvis released his version in 1956. Although the young Elvis — a blues connoisseur for sure — had likely heard Thornton's version of the song, most of those around him at the time agree Elvis picked up on the song after hearing Freddie and the Bellboys' rendition during Presley's first 1956 booking in Las Vegas.

When Elvis developed his version of the song, he kept elements of both the Thornton and Freddie and the Bellboys arrangements, but added his own touches he'd worked out with his backing musicians from his early Sun Records days who'd made the transition with him to RCA: Lead guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana. (Unfortunately, Elvis' Manager Col. Tom Parker would see they didn't stay with him for long.)

Elvis had already performed the song twice on national television before he recorded it, on both "The Milton Berle Show" and "The Steve Allen Show." On Berle's show, Elvis performed that last part of "Hound Dog" at a slowed-down speed, throwing in some bumps and grands to suit the almost-burlesque feel on the slower part of the song.

While Elvis' teenage fans were thrilled, at least part of Mr. and Mrs. America was not. Ed Sullivan was quoted as saying he would never book Elvis to perform on his show! We all know how that worked out.

With Elvis already booked to play on "The Steve Allen Show," Allen bucked demands by network executives to cancel the Elvis appearance. Allen, who fancied himself a songwriter, was not a fan of rock 'n' roll, but he knew a ratings winner when he saw, or heard, one.

Determined to take away the opportunity for Elvis to get too lost in the music, he had Elvis lose the guitar, dress up in a tuxedo and sing "Hound Dog" to a real basset hound wearing a top hat! Although Elvis appeared to take it all in-stride while on-camera, this time was the was the one not amused.

The very next day, Elvis went into the RCA studios to record "Hound Dog" as well as the other side of his next single. Elvis really produced himself on the RCA recording session, despite what the credits say, based on accounts from those who were there.

Elvis took out the slowed-down burlesque beat part of the song he'd performed on the "Milton Berle Show," making his release of "Hound Dog" an almost frantic recording, with stinging electric guitar solos from Moore and a rapid machine gun-like attack on the snare drum by Fontana as a break between verses.

He and his band recorded 32 takes of "Hound Dog," which Moore said added to his aggressive playing as he got fed up with the repeated cuts. Such was the energy that some now consider Presley's "Hound Dog" as the first punk music recording. Elvis finally settled on take 28 as the one to keep.

These days, when recordings can take months, it's all the more amazing to me that Elvis his band, along with backing vocalists the Jordanaires, jumped right into recording the single's next side.

This one, called "Don't Be Cruel," had been presented to Elvis by his new music publishing company, Hill and Range, written by ace songwriter Otis Blackwell.

If Presley's musicians thought they might get a break after their marathon session for "Hound Dog," they were wrong. Instead, they went through another 28 sessions for "Don't Be Cruel." (That may have been how the musicians felt toward Elvis after about take 25.)

Even after that, they cut yet another song, "Any Way You Want Me," which I consider one the best-ever Elvis performances.

RCA ended up coupling "Hound Dog" and "Don't be Cruel" into a single double-sided 45 RPM vinyl record for release to radio and the record-buying public, designating "Don't Be Cruel" as the A-side and "Hound Dog" the B-side.

No matter. Elvis fans started grabbing up the record as soon as it hit the shelves, with "Hound Dog" gaining the initial notoriety, but with "Don't Be Cruel" nipping at its heels.

Both sides became huge hits as rock 'n' roll continued its rise as a mass phenomenon and both hit number one during the record's 11-week run on the charts.

Oh yes. Ed Sullivan quickly forgot about never hiring Elvis to be on his show and booked him for three different nights — in the end telling his television audience that Elvis was one of the nicest "big-name" performers he'd ever had on his show.

So have the two songs stood the test of time? It's still difficult to find a rock 'n' roll music fan of any age who hasn't heard "Hound Dog." The Elvis recording achieved induction into The Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988.

But wait! The more bluesy version by Big Mama Thornton won induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2013. Then, in 2017, the National Recording Registry selected Thornton's version for preservation in Library of Congress, deeming it "culturally, historically or artistically significant."

Don't forget about "Don't Be Cruel," though. It achieved selection into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002.

In this case, it didn't much matter which side had originally been dubbed the A-side or the B-side of the "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel" combo — because it ended up being one of the greatest two-sided smashes in recording history.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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