In 1956, Las Vegas showgoers never heard of Elvis Presley. That April, his show flopped at the New Frontier. According to historians Barbra and Myrick Land, “fans of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Liberace were not impressed. Local critics yawned. Variety said ‘Elvis Presley….doesn’t hit the mark here.’ Newsweek compared Presley’s Las Vegas debut to ‘a jug of corn liquor at a champagne party.’”
Presley’s manager—“Colonel” Tom Parker—suggested that he watch other Vegas shows, to learn what other headliners in town were doing right. The suggestion would prove career-changing for the young Elvis Presley, for his next big success would be discovered at the Sands. As Barbra and Myrick Land describe it:
A lounge act at the Sands, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, was such a hit with Elvis that he kept going back to see it again and again. What he liked best was Bell’s showstopper song that began, “You ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog!”
Elvis loved it and learned it. In Last Train to Memphis, Peter Guralnick’s almost day-by-day biography of Elvis Presley, the author says the song had already been a huge success in 1953 for a black singer, Big Mama Thornton.
“Hound Dog,” Guralnick wrote, “had been written by two white teenagers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who specialized in rhythm and blues, and was a very odd choice for a male performer, since it was written from a female point of view.” Nevertheless, the song became Elvis’s next big hit.
In June he sang “Hound Dog” on Milton Berle’s television show. Elvis was a sensation, but his controversial gyrating performance stirred so much talk that the mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey, banned rock-‘n’-roll from the city limits. Elvis’s name became a household word to spark family arguments. His face, licensed by the Colonel, appeared on charm bracelets and decorated lipsticks in “Hound Dog Orange.”