“Heartbreak Hotel”


A suicide note was the unlikely inspiration behind the song that became Elvis’ first No. 1 hit and million-selling single. Steel guitarist and session musician Tommy Durden read a newspaper article about a man who had killed himself, leaving behind a note with the haunting words: “I walk a lonely street.”

Durden brought the article to his friend and co-writer Mae Boren Axton. A 41-year-old high school English teacher who moonlighted as a songwriter, Axton had notched a few hits in the early 1950s with such artists as Perry Como and Ernest Tubb. In 1955, she took a part-time position as a public relations secretary for Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker. When Axton first met Presley, she knew he had it all to become a star—except a hit song.

As Axton and Durden discussed how they could turn the article into a song, Axton suggested there be a “heartbreak hotel” at the end of that lonely street. With that flash of inspiration, the pair was off and running. Evoking a place where “broken-hearted lovers cry away their gloom,” they managed to convey in very few words a mood that was both romantically charged and funereal.

Though the duo is responsible for penning the song, Presley’s name appeared on the record as a third writer. It’s common knowledge the Colonel often insisted that Presley get co-writing credit in exchange for cutting a song. But in later years, Axton insisted that the shared credit was her promise made good to help Elvis buy a house in Florida for his parents.

Axton took a demo of the song to Presley while he was on the road. His reaction was immediate. It reminded him of one of his favorite records, Roy Brown’s “Hard Luck Blues.” He quickly added the song to his live repertoire, changing one line of the lyric, from “they pray to die” to “they could die.”

On January 10, 1956, two days after his 21st birthday, Presley recorded his first five sides for RCA in Nashville. Among them was “Heartbreak Hotel.” The echo-like atmosphere punctuated by drummer D.J. Fontana’s rim shots and Scotty Moore’s moody guitar lent a despair to the track that perfectly matched the singer’s heart-rending vocal.

The song was markedly different from anything Presley had done previously at Sun Records. When his former label boss Sam Phillips heard a sampling of the Nashville session, he pronounced it a “morbid mess.” Back in RCA’s New York headquarters, the reaction was a similar. Producer Steve Sholes recalled, “They all told me it didn’t sound like his other records, and I’d better not release it.”

But Presley was unfazed, certain that the song was the right one to catapult him into the big time. It was released on January 27, 1956. The next day, Elvis made his network television debut, performing live on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show. It was the first of six appearances over the next few months, and he sang “Heartbreak Hotel” on three. On April 3, he did the song on the Milton Berle Show—and two weeks later, he scored his first No. 1 pop hit. The tune also topped the country chart and made it to the Top 5 on the R&B chart.

Mae Axton continued to write songs into the ’60s and ’70s, but despite overtures from the King, she never supplied him with a follow-up. Her son Hoyt became a famous country star. She died in 1982. Co-writer Tommy Durden also continued to write until his death in 1999, but never had a bigger hit.

“Heartbreak Hotel” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1995.

–Bill DeMain


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