Jerry Leiber, the writer of numerous 1950s musical standards who died on Monday, stood in the middle of one of the rock world’s longest-running disputes. Leiber wasn’t yet 20 when, along with his collaborator Mike Stoller, he wrote the song “Hound Dog’’ for the blues singer Big Mama Thornton. Her version, sung with a growling intensity, was an under-the-radar hit. But the song became a classic four years later after it was recorded by a rising Elvis Presley.
Presley acknowledged his debt to black musicians, whose career horizons were clouded by segregation, and “Hound Dog’’ has always been a data point in accounts of how rock and roll grew out of rhythm and blues.
Leiber played a role in a related, but less freighted, matter: The ongoing question over whether Thornton’s bluesy version of the song was better than Presley’s rocking one. Despite admiring and working closely with Presley, Leiber voted for Thornton. In his memory - and Elvis’ and Big Mama’s - readers should sample both versions and decide for themselves.