David Fricke chatted with Leiber & Stoller in 1990. Jerry Leiber passed today.
Was “Hound Dog” written specifically for Big Mama Thornton?
Leiber: Absolutely, the afternoon we saw her. Johnny Otis told us to come down to his garage in the back of his house, where he used to rehearse. He wanted us to listen to his people and see if we could write some tunes for them.
We saw Big Mama and she knocked me cold. She looked like the biggest, baddest, saltiest chick you would ever see. And she was mean, a “lady bear,” as they used to call ’em. She must have been 350 pounds, and she had all these scars all over her face. I had to write a song for her that basically said, “Go fuck yourself.” But how to do it without actually saying it? And how to do it telling a story? I couldn’t just have a song full of expletives.
Hence the hound dog.
Leiber: Right. “You ain’t nothin’ but a motherfucker.”
Stoller: She was a wonderful blues singer, with a great moaning style. But it was as much her appearance as her blues style that influenced the writing of “Hound Dog” and the idea that we wanted her to growl it. Which she rejected at first. Her thing was “Don’t you tell me how to sing no song!”