Musicians and dogs are a lot alike. Both operate on instinct and feeling. Both have finely tuned ears that can pick up good and bad vibrations. And both make the world a better place by helping others feel a little less lonely.
With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that there’d be mutual appreciation of the musical kind. While dogs compose their own spontaneous tunes—“I Haven’t Seen You in Forever!” and “Scratch My Chin Again” are two favorites—musicians have been a little more considered in their creations over the years.
The story of dogs in popular music began in 1853, when American songwriter Stephen Foster was given a beautiful English Setter, whom he named Tray. Foster so loved his pal that he wrote “Old Dog Tray,” a sentimental ode that became the blueprint for bow-wow ballads from then on.
In the early 20th century, dogs were roving through Tin Pan Alley in hits such as “Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” and “Fido Is a Hot Dog Now,” a 1914 song about a naughty pooch who ends up in Hell.
But the modern era of pup pop didn’t begin until the mid-’50s when Patti Page wondered about the price of the doggie in the window and Elvis Presley complained about a hound dog on a cryin’ jag. Since then, artists from the Beatles to Neil Young to Red Hot Chili Peppers have done the dog. To celebrate this genre, here are the stories behind ten purebred faves.
“Martha My Dear”
Composed by John Lennon & Paul McCartney
Performed by The Beatles
One afternoon in 1968, Paul McCartney was at the piano, when out tumbled a melody with the phrase “Martha my dear” attached. It made sense, as Paul’s three-year-old English Sheepdog Martha loved music and often lay at her master’s feet while he was composing. McCartney told biographer Barry Miles, “You can read anything you like into it, but really it’s just me singing to my dog.”
Later, McCartney revised his take on “Martha,” calling it a song about “a muse.”
“I mean, I’m not really speaking to Martha. It’s a communication of affection but in a slightly abstract way—‘You silly girl, look what you’ve done.’ Whereas it would appear to anybody else to be a song to a girl called Martha, it’s actually a dog. And our relationship was platonic, believe me,” he added with a chuckle.
Composed by Henry Gross
Performed by Henry Gross
Released 1976 (#6 US)
“Having an Irish Setter is like marrying a Victoria’s Secret model,” laughs Henry Gross. “It’s going to be rough from day one, because she knows she’s gorgeous.”
Shannon came into Gross’s life via his marriage in the mid-’70s, about the same time he was opening tours for the Beach Boys. Gross and Carl Wilson bonded over Irish Setters, as Wilson’s had recently been killed by a car.
Back home in New York, with Shannon nearby, Gross thought about Carl “and the song just kind of wrote itself.”
“I knew the second I wrote it there was something special about it,” he says.
To this day, Gross still gets letters from fans who find solace in the tender-hearted song. “Whenever somebody loses a dog, they hit henrygross.com,” he says. “I just e-mailed a guy who lost a dog—and this may sound corny, but I said, ‘Whenever a great dog dies, I see it as an opportunity to save another poor dog, to share your love with a soul nobody wants.”
Composed by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Performed by Elvis Presley
Released 1956 (#1 US)