Originally recorded as a solo vocal and guitar piece by Red Foley in December 1935, and released as Conqueror 8631 around the time of Elvis' first birthday in January 1936, Presley's master of "Old Shep" taped twenty years later has come to be reviled by certain segments of the Presley fan base.
Elvis Presley "Old Shep" Elvis (RCA Victor LPM 1382, October 1956)
Besides appearing on Elvis' second LP for RCA, the song was included on an EP called Elvis, Volume 2 (RCA EPA 993, November 1956), along with three other tracks from the LP.
And, amazingly, from that EP "Old Shep" became a HIT!
It CHARTED in Billboard's "Top 100," reaching #47 in the last issue of the year.
Billboard - December 29, 1956
Elvis tunes appear at #2, #7, #26, #38, #54, #54 (yes, twice: 2 songs tied), #78 and #93.
What a year for the kid from Tupelo.
Listening today, more than sixty years later, we hear in "Old Shep" an incredible, utterly sincere performance. Taped at West Hollywood's Radio Recorders in September 1956, Elvis lays it all on the line, leading the way on piano, clearly remembering the painful death of his own dog, Tex, from mange.
Too bad he couldn't have sung "Old Tex" instead, but that might have pushed emotions too far forward to complete even one take.
You get in moods sometimes where you're very happy, you get in moods where you're very sad, where everything looks dark and gloomy, and it looks like there's nothing for you in life. I guess everybody feels that way, it's human nature.
Yes. And on that song that you do, "Old Shep," I suppose that you were feeling that when you were singing about ol' Shep?
Yes, because I had a dog that the same thing happened to.
What was your dog's name?
My dog was named Tex. But he had mange real bad and they had to kill him.
- radio interview with Buddy - circa early 1957
Let's also not forget it was with "Old Shep" that Elvis made his stage debut.
Mrs. Oleta Grimes, his fifth grade teacher at East Tupelo Consolidated, had been so impressed by his singing at school that she brought him to the principal, Mr. Cole, who in turn entered the 10 year-old in the WELO radio talent contest on "Children's Day" -- Wednesday, October 3, 1945 -- part of the annual "Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show" at the Tupelo Fairgrounds.
At the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show talent contest in Tupelo - Wednesday, October 3, 1945
Elvis is second from the right, first place winner Shirley Gillentine fourth from the left, second place winner Nubin Payne fourth from the right.
Elvis won fifth place for his acapella, standing-on-a-chair version of "Old Shep," and later a whipping from Gladys. In his July 1972 MGM interview he remembered, "I wore glasses, no music, and I won, I think it was fifth place in this state talent contest. I got a whipping the same day, my mother whipped me for something, I don't know, [going on] one of the rides. Destroyed my ego completely."
Friend, actor, songwriter and bodyguard Bobby "Red" West revealed in the stunning 2018 HBO documentary "Elvis Presley: The Searcher" that the Humes High talent show, likely part of the school's annual "carnival" benefit on March 27, 1953, was won by Elvis singing ... "Old Shep."
I had a little four piece band, I was playing the trumpet, and Elvis had his guitar and he got up and sang "Old Shep," Red Foley's sad song about his old dog that died.
Singing that tearjerker, he put emotion into it, sang the heck out of it. And he won first place (laughs). And my little band didn't do sh'it.
- Red West, "Elvis Presley: The Searcher" (April 2018)
So it is beyond debate that "Old Shep" as done by Elvis blew people away. Later we would learn this included some very famous artists.
One of them, Lubbock, Texas singer-songwriter Mac Davis, told Elvis when they first met that, of all songs, "Old Shep" struck him to the core. Mac was a bit of a talisman in Presley's renaissance period (1968-1970).
Read a cool interview with him here:
Mac Davis on Elvis --> "Beyond My Wildest Dreams"
And I also recall reading an article shortly after Elvis died, where another famous musician gave props to the Presley song that changed his life:
Hollywood Hotline —
John Denver’s Originality Inspired By Another Original -- Elvis Presley
By NANCY ANDERSON
HOLLYWOOD - John Denver says that when he was 12 years old he suffered a bout with measles which kept him in bed for two weeks during which time he heard a singer whose style was so original and so moving that he, Denver, was inspired.
“I didn’t want to copy him,” Denver says, “but after hearing him I knew that I wanted to sing in my own way.” In other words, the originality of the singer he heard, convinced young John that he could dare to be original too.
So, during his opening performance at Harrah’s at Tahoe, Nev., on Aug. 26, he dedicated a song to the man who’d inspired him.
The song was “Old Shep,” and at its close Denver said, “That’s for you, Elvis.” He explained to his audience that Elvis had recorded "Shep” as the flip side of one of his early hits.
But he didn’t say because he didn't know that “Shep” was the first song Elvis ever sang publicly for strangers.
He was in the fifth grade when his teacher persuaded him to sing the song in a talent contest at a fair.
I don’t know whether or not he won, but I know the teacher said there was hardly a dry eye in the audience when the little boy finished his performance.
Now back to Denver:
His stand at Harrah’s, Aug. 26 through Sept. 4, was his only live public appearance in this country this year, though the public will have plenty of chance to see him in his first movie, “Oh, God,” for Warner’s, co-starring George Burns in the title role.
Supporting Denver’s ecologist image, the stage at Harrah’s was dressed with hanging baskets of ferns, airplane plants, etc., and several of his songs were illustrated with moving pictures of blowing wheat fields. soaring birds, mountains, trees and other wonders of nature.
Denver’s opening night performance was larded with the songs which made him famous including “Annie’s Song,” “Annie’s Other Song," “Rocky Mountain High” which he described as his very favorite song, and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
Denver says he’d gotten so tired of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” that for a while he didn’t want to sing it but that, after he became interested in the problem of world hunger which he thinks can be solved within the next score of years, he changed his attitude toward the song.
"I think we can end world hunger within the next 10 or 20 years,” Denver says, “and, if we don’t, maybe it’ll be because I’m not doing my part.
“I’ve found out that the American farmer produces 30 per cent more than any other farmer in the world, so now I say thank God I am a country boy.
“Now I love to sing the song.”
Annie, Denver’s wife who usually accompanies him to club and concert engagements, wasn’t at Harrah’s on his opening night because, he explained, she wasn’t feeling well.
However, she was well remembered not only in “Annie’s Song” and “Annie’s Other Song” but in “How Can I Leave You Again?,” a bit of musical self-examination Denver wrote the day after Christmas when he had to fly away from home to Los Angeles to finish his picture for Warner’s. “Annie had thought I was going to be home for a week at Christmas,” he says, “but I didn’t get there until Christmas Eve, and she was pretty ticked off.”
On opening night, Denver sang “How Can I Leave You Again?” without the orchestra, because the orchestration hadn’t arrived at Tahoe in time for the show.
His engagement had been sold out for weeks before it began, and though a minimum of $25 was being charged for dinner in the show room opening night, nobody in the audience seemed to begrudge a penny of that the dinner show was costing as the crowd reacted with whoops, applause and standing ovations.
One table, however, appeared more interested in Presley than in Denver, since, throughout a considerable segment of the concert, its occupants were debating:
“Did Elvis really record Old Shep?”’
Denver isn’t the new Elvis Presley, because that’s not his goal, and because be couldn’t realize it if it were. Nobody could.
On the other hand, nobody will ever be a new John Denver.
Like the singer who inspired him when he was 12, he’s an original.
Desert Sun, Thursday, October 13, 1977
"That’s for you, Elvis."
Note this John Denver interview was conducted by Nancy Anderson, who covered Elvis in Hollywood for nearly twenty years and interviewed him several times.
"Old Shep" sheet music, circa October 1956 - Autographed by Elvis and Sam Phillips!!
- From the estate of Dan Oberholtz, AKA prominent Kansas City area disc jockey "Dan Diamond"
Thanks to Mister Moon for the link.
Given the history in front of us, it's not difficult to imagine Elvis singing "Old Shep" to Sam Phillips at 706 Union as a possible Sun recording, back in 1954-1955. Phillips recalled that many sessions found them going through lots and lots of ballads before getting to the r&b, pop and country material that the producer really wanted to capture on tape.