Was Elvis slighted? Or was it a brilliant PR move?

On July 1, 1956, Elvis Presley appeared on The Steve Allen Show. He wore a tuxedo and sang “Hound Dog” to a basset hound.

Alan Hanson writes a well researched piece about the adventure on his Elvis History blog. It’s a complicated story.

There was concern among the TV hosts of the day that the older crowd wasn’t ready for The King’s girations. His detractors thought Elvis used the moves to cover for what they perceived as a lack of talent.

Earlier, Presley’s machinations on Milton Berle’s show drew conservative ire.  Allen wrote to columnist Charlie Mercer, that he had booked Elvis before the Berle incident and would live up to his legal obligations. But he added that Elvis.. “thoughtlessly indulged in certain dance movements on his last TV appearance which a number of people thought objectionable … He knows he made a mistake with the Milton Berle business and I think he’s smart enough not to do it again … So the thing to do, it seems to me, is to allow him to appear on television any time he wants, but to make certain that he conducts himself in a gentlemanly manner, and that is precisely my intention.”

Steve Allen was also smart enough to see an opportunity to use the controversy to attract an audience and, likely came up with the basset hound performance as a way to tone down Elvis’ usual routine while creating his own brand of controversy.

It worked. He recalled the performance for a 1971 radio documentary about The King.

“Back in 1956, the kind of thing that is so common now was considered scandalous by some. It never bothered me any, but, in any event, we had to take some kind of recognition of all this publicity, if only for comedy purposes. So I decided to put Elvis in evening clothes. We put him, in fact, in tails, and we built a very dignified set, which consisted, I think, chiefly of Greek columns and perhaps a sky in the background and billowing, gossamer curtains. It was something of that sort. It was very dignified. We might even have had a chandelier in evidence. And we put this marvelous basset hound, I think it was, on a low Greek column, and had Elvis sing to him in this very dignified kind of Carnegie Hall context, and the contrast between the somewhat inane lyric of that particular song and the wild way in which Elvis sang it, with the attire and scenery, made for a funny set up.”

Many Elvis fans thought it was a deliberate attempt to humiliate him and ridicule Rock ‘n’ Roll music, but Allen insisted for years that he meant no disrespect. He maintained that Elvis was in on the gag from the beginning and thought it was hilarious. After the show, Herald-Tribune columnist Hy Gardner asked Elvis, in a telephone interview, if he had “fun”. “Yes, sir,” Elvis answered. “I really did. I really enjoyed it.”

Whether or not that was true, Both Allen and Presley got what they wanted. Allen handily beat Ed Sullivan in the Trendex ratings. Video of the performance still circulates on YouTube. Every generation of Elvis fans have seen it. And while the story was still percolating in the press,  Elvis went into the studio the next day and recorded the iconic version of Hound Dog everyone remembers.

Wikipedia notes that Elvis only cut the tune at the insistence of RCA Records executives.  Musicologist Robert Fink asserts that “Elvis drove the band through thirty-one takes, slowly fashioning a menacing, rough-trade version quite different than the one they had been performing on the stage.”The result of Presley’s efforts was an “angry hopped-up version” of “Hound Dog”.Citing Presley’s anger at his treatment on the Steve Allen Show the previous evening, (literary critic)Peter Nazareth sees this recording as “revenge on Steve (“you ain’t no friend of mine”) Allen, and as a protest at being censored on national TV.”

Initially released as the B-side of the single on July 13, 1956, both tracks were best sellers. Hound Dog peaked at number 2 on the Billboard pop survey, but the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller composition was a solid number one on the country & western and rhythm & blues charts. It was this hard-charging rendition that The King performed on The Ed Sullivan Show September 9 and October 28, 1956.

The recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it No. 19 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2004. And the flame-throwing performance that Steve Allen may well have inspired is recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.”

Thanks for listening!

Scott Westerman
Curator: Keener13.com
Host and Producer – Rock and Roll Revisited
Author: Motor City Music – Keener 13 and the Soundtrack of Detroit