On This Day: Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ Tops the Country Chart in 1956

by Jim Casey

St. Patrick’s Day 1956 turned out to be exceptionally lucky for Elvis Presley as “Heartbreak Hotel” reached No. 1 on the country chart. As luck would have it, the tune stayed there for 17 weeks.

Elvis cut country songs before he cut loose to become the “King.” Two days after turning 21 years old on January 8, 1956, Elvis went to the recording studio to lay down a couple of tracks: a cover of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” and “Heartbreak Hotel.”

The recording session was Elvis Presley’s first for his new label, Nashville’s RCA Victor, after moving on from Sun Records in Memphis.

Songwriting Inspiration

Penned by Mae Axton (mother of singer/songwriter Hoyt Axton) and Tommy Durden, “Heartbreak Hotel” was inspired by tragedy. As Mae recalled in the 1994 book, Elvis Up Close, Tommy came over to her home in Jacksonville, Fla., to pen songs with something on his mind.

“[Tommy] came over and he had a little clipping from the Miami paper,” said Mae. “Something about a middle-aged, nicely dressed man who had torn out all his identification, wrote one line, ‘I walk the lonely street,’ and committed suicide.”

Mae and Tommy discussed the tragedy until she said, “I’m going to put a heartbreak hotel at the end of that lonely street.” Less than an hour later, the song was written and Mae recruited her friend Glen Reeves to sing the demo.

Elvis Finds Success With ‘Heartbreak’

Not only did “Heartbreak Hotel” spend 17 weeks at No. 1 on the country chart, but the tune also reached No. 1 on the pop chart. “Heartbreak Hotel” became Elvis’ first crossover No. 1 hit, spending eight weeks at No. 1 on the pop chart.

Though music historians agree Elvis had minimal input with the songwriting, Mae made sure he received partial songwriting credit.

The RIAA has certified “Heartbreak Hotel” as 2X Platinum for sales of 2 million units, making it one of Elvis Presley’s Top 10 best-selling singles. In 1995, “Heartbreak Hotel” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone listed the song at No. 45 on 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.