Heartbreak Hotel

The origins of Elvis Presley's hit "Heartbreak Hotel" can be found in Miami. "I walk a lonely street.” So read the suicide note of an anonymous soul who ended his life in a Miami hotel. The Miami Herald ran a photo of his corpse on the front page with the headline, "Do You Know This Man?" The story went on to explain that the man had been discovered with no identification. Police found only the note in one of his pockets.

In Gainesville, songwriter-musician Tommy Durden thought the line in the note resonated the blues and would make a great lyric in a song. He sought the opinion of his friend Mae Boren Axton, who was a local songwriter, TV personality, and publicist.

Axton had once done some work for Colonel Tom Parker, and she suggested that they write the song for Elvis Presley. As the story goes, she had once told Elvis that she was going to write his first million seller. After Mae decided that "down at the end of

Lonely Street
" one would naturally find a "Heartbreak Hotel," the rest of the song was composed by the team within the hour.

Glen Reeves, a local singer, recorded a demo record of the song in a style that suggested Elvis Presley. Axton flew to Nashville in November 1955 to introduce the song to Elvis, who was in Music City to attend a convention for country music disc jockeys. Elvis loved the song, supposedly exclaiming, "Hot dog, Mae!" as he played it about ten times in a row.

"Heartbreak Hotel" became the first record Elvis released on his new label, RCA. In December 1955 RCA had reissued Elvis' "Mystery Train," originally released on the Sun label, but the reissue did not sell particularly well. Elvis entered RCA's Nashville studios on January 10, 1956, to record new material. "Heartbreak Hotel" was the second song Elvis recorded that day.

Axton had asked Reeves to emulate Elvis' style on the demo, and Elvis copied the vocal intonations of Reeves for his recording. This story shows that Elvis' style was familiar enough to be recognized as his at the time. It also illustrates Elvis' pattern when recording a demo. He copied the interpretation of the demo singer whenever he recorded his version of a song.

At Sun Records, Elvis had been backed by Sentry Moore on guitar and Bill Black on bass. Later a drummer was added -- a position eventually filled by D.J. Fontana on a permanent basis. At RCA, Elvis' combo was joined by Chet Atkins on rhythm guitar and Floyd Cramer on piano, along with a gospel trio consisting of Ben and Brock Speer of the Speer Family and Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires.

"Heartbreak Hotel" borrowed the echo sound that was associated with Elvis' Sun releases, perhaps even exaggerating it. The effect is eerie, downright ghostly, particularly during the opening lines to each verse when Elvis sings without accompaniment. His voice is penetrating, and the sound is despondent, perfectly capturing the alienation of disaffected youth.

The song was released as a single on January 27, 1956, backed by "I Was the One." The next day Elvis appeared on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's television variety series, Stage Show, but he did not sing "Heartbreak Hotel" until his third appearance on the show, February 11. He sang it on two subsequent Stage Show appearances and on his first appearance on The Milton Berle Show on April 3.

The television exposure undoubtedly helped propel the song to the number-one slot on Billboard's best-seller and juke box charts, where it stayed for eight weeks. The song also reached number one on the country chart and number three on the R&B chart. It became Elvis' first million seller, just as Axton had predicted.

Mae, Ken, and Mrs. Ed Wood

Elvis recorded hundreds of songs written by a variety of composers during his career, so it is not surprising that some of those songwriters might fall under the heading "peculiar." Mae Boren Axton, the coauthor of "Heartbreak Hotel," was an English teacher who worked around the periphery of show business while living in Florida. She had worked as a publicist for the Hank Snow All-Star Jamboree, Which had also employed Colonel Tom Parker. Axton was the sister of Oklahoma senator David Boren and the mother of singer/actor Hoyt Axton. After Elvis died, she contributed to the liner notes of Ronnie McDowell's The King Is Gone.

Academy Award-winning composer Ken Darby wrote and arranged "Love Me Tender" for Elvis' first film. Early in his career, Darby made a unique contribution to American movie culture when he fulfilled an unusual assignment for the film The Wizard of Oz. He was responsible for creating the distinctive sound of the Munchkins’ voices.

Dolores Fuller cowrote 12 songs for Elvis, including "Rock-a-Hula Baby," "Do the Clam,” and "Barefoot Ballad." Fuller was the wife of Ed Wood, Jr., a now famous director of horror and exploitation films who worked on the fringes of the industry during the 1950s and 1960s. She appeared in his 1954 film Jail Bait.

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Heartbreak Hotel
"Heartbreak Hotel" was inspired by the suicide note of a man who ended his life
in a Miami hotel.