Elvis Presley and ‘Heartbreak Hotel:’ How the Legendary Tune Became One of the King’s Greatest

by Joe Rutland
(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Triumph and tragedy are themes that run through Elvis Presley and his life. Little did the kid from Tupelo, Miss., think one would lead to his first hit.

“Heartbreak Hotel” didn’t start out from a happy perspective.

Tommy Durden, a session musician and guitar player, recalls seeing a story about a man’s suicide in the Miami Herald newspaper.

“I saw a little item one day about a man that had killed himself,” Durden recalls in a 1991 interview, “and all that he left in the way of a suicide note was ‘I walk a lonely street.’ And that just struck me as being very, very lonely. He must’ve been extremely lonely.

“So I started working on that idea and I knew Mae Axton,” Durden says. “She was a school teacher and songwriter and also did some public relations work for some Grand Ole Opry shows, including Tom Parker and Oscar Davis, the groups he would bring in.”

Durden talks more about his involvement with the song in the interview.

As the song started taking shape, Colonel Tom Parker just took over Presley’s career in 1955, Durden says.

Colonel Tom Parker Works A Deal For Elvis Presley

“He (Parker) had engineered the deal for RCA to buy his record contract from Sam Phillips of Sun Records,” Durden says. “So I took my idea to Jacksonville (Fla.), I was working on a TV show out of Jacksonville, and I drove up from Gainesville to stay with my brother…and I went up there and went over to Mae’s house and I told her, ‘I have a good, good idea for a good blues, but I need some help and I think you and I can do it.'”

Durden recalls that Axton sat down at the piano while he walked around.

“In less than half an hour, we had the song,” Durden says, “and we had a friend named Glen Reeves make a dub on it. He could sing, he could do a halfway Elvis impersonation, so we had him do the impression on the dub.”

When asked if the song was done with Presley in mind, Durden says, “Yes, absolutely. We had Elvis in mind and she knew him. She had met him through her work with Colonel Tom and Oscar Davis and that was in September of ’55 and she was going to a DJ convention in Nashville in October.

“So we made arrangements for her to get the song to Elvis,” Durden says, “and I told her I thought it would be a good idea if she got the song to Elvis. It was his first release on RCA and if he liked it well enough and accepted it, then we’d give him a third of the writer’s royalties on it so there’d be three of us on it. And that’s how it went down, just as planned.”

Elvis Presley Records First Song, Yet Still Has No Hit

Presley, though, had made his first recordings at Sun Records with “That’s All Right” in 1954.

That song didn’t become a hit and he needed one to move ahead in his career.

Axton took the demo itself up to that DJ conference and delivered it.

Presley heard it, liked it, and went into the RCA studios on Jan. 10, 1956, and recorded “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Producer Steve Sholes and engineer Bob Ferris were behind the board. Presley was backed in the studio by guitarist Scotty Moore, drummer D.J. Fontana, and bassist Bill Black. Also sitting in were legendary guitar player Chet Atkins and pianist Floyd Cramer, along with the Jordaniares on vocals.

It was a totally different song and beat from earlier Presley recordings. The song is filled with heartache and pain, gloom and doom. It was a shift from the foot-tapping, hip-swiveling kind of rock and blues he’d sung up to this point. Reportedly, when Phillips heard an acetate from the Nashville session, he pronounced “Heartbreak Hotel” a “morbid mess.”

The song’s initial lyrics provide a haunting, almost death-like refrain…and bring in the words written on that slip of paper.

Since my baby left me
Well, I found a new place to dwell
Well, it’s down at the end of Lonely Street
At Heartbreak Hotel
Where I’ll be–where I get so lonely, baby
Well, I’m so lonely
I get so lonely, I could die

Elvis Believed In The Song, Overriding Others’ Concern

Back in the RCA Records boardroom in New York, there was a similar consensus. Sholes recalled, “They all told me it didn’t sound like anything, it didn’t sound like his other records, and I’d better not release it. I better go back and record it again.”

Elvis, though, was certain that it was the right song to put him at the top of the charts.

It was released on January 27, 1956. The next day, Presley made his network television debut, performing live on CBS’ “Stage Show” hosted by big-band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. It was the first of six appearances over the next few months, and he sang “Heartbreak Hotel” on three of those.

Here’s Presley performing the song on March 17, 1956, on CBS.

An Initial Victory Against Those Who Hated Presley

Presley started making numerous TV appearances beyond “Stage Show.” He wowed Sunday night audiences who religiously tuned into CBS’ “Th Ed Sullivan Show,” along with NBC’s “The Milton Berle Show” and others.

Sullivan, though, was not a believer from the beginning. He felt like Presley was a threat to his audience and declared that Elvis would never appear on his show due to the singer’s perceived obscenity of the establishment.

It only took NBC’s “The Steve Allen Show” beating Sullivan in the ratings to change the host’s mind.

Even in his early days, Presley was considered an outsider by people who despised rock-and-roll music. Some religious groups called it “the music of the Devil” and smashed 45s on film, including Presley’s recordings.

Elvis, though, was already a beloved performer by many and his career kept going up. He made records, movies, TV appearances, and concerts all over the world. He was a rebel with a cause. The poor kid from Tupelo could command anything he wanted and he usually got it.

Tragedy in the form of drug addiction and isolation from the public took its toll on “The King of Rock-and Roll,” leading up to his death on Aug. 16, 1977.

Yet no one can take away this man’s legend and, most important, his and “Heartbreak Hotel’s” mark upon the American music scene.