Initially, I was thinking about posting a more obscure cut by the Queen of Rock & Roll, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, but the original 1952 cut of “Hound Dog” is inescapably good. While Thornton’s soulful vocals remained perfect in their ragged signature throughout her career, the original 1952 recording of “Hound Dog” has a level of minimalist excellence absent from her other recordings. The 1952 “Hound Dog” lacks the West Coast Jazz vibraphones of “The Big Change” as well as the Swing horn charts and piano of “Cotton Picking Blues” or the R&B saxophone honks of “They Call Me Big Mama.” Instead, the 1952 recording of “Hound Dog” presents a very sparse, atmospheric low-down blues track: the congo drums and handclaps add a swampy New Orleans rhumba vibe, while the lead guitar work is a study in minimalism that contains the germinal seed of the primitivist trends in punk and garage-rock. It’s perfectly fitting that Howlin’ Wolf was cutting his own primitivist masterpieces for Sun Records around this time. This song, of all Thornton’s catalogue, finds her not chasing the aforementioned musical trends, but laying down a track that perfectly navigated between the blues that inspired it, and the rock and roll that would follow it. It’s no wonder Elvis built his career around a cover of this tune. Crank up the volume, kick back, and really appreciate the brilliant simplicity of the guitar lines. Dig it.
Big Mama Thornton, “Hound Dog” (1952)