Heartbreak Hotel - Elvis Presley

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"Heartbreak Hotel" - Elvis Presley (1956)

The first serious hit for Elvis Presley, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was based on a newspaper report of a man who destroyed all his identification papers before he jumped from a hotel window leaving a suicide note that said, “I walk a lonely street.”

High school teacher Mae Boren Axton wrote the lyrics saying that the report about the suicide “stunned” her, and she told her co songwriter Tommy Durden that, “Everybody in the world has someone who cares. Let’s put a Heartbreak Hotel at the end of this lonely street.”

Axton approached the popular singing duo The Wilburn Brothers, and offered them the chance to record “Heartbreak Hotel”. However, Doyle and Teddy Wilburn declined, thought the song was “strange and almost morbid.”

Axton thought that Elvis would be a great choice to perform “Heartbreak Hotel” after she witnessed an incident demonstrating the effect he had on his audience. After a performance screaming fans broke into his dressing room and ripped off his clothes for souvenirs. Axton played the demo to Presley in his hotel room to which he responded: “Hot dog, Mae, play that again!”

Axton and Durden give different accounts of how the song was composed. Durden said he had already written and performed it with his band. Axton claimed Durden had only penned a few lines of the song, and asked her to help him finish it.

When Elvis first sang “Heartbreak Hotel” in Swifton, Arkansas in 1955, he predicted that it would be his first hit and it was after he performed it on the Dorsey Brothers television show. By years’ end it had sold more than a million copies making it his first gold record.

The track continued to influence other musicians, singers, performers and even politicians. John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Keith Richards all claimed to have been heavily influenced by this song.

It is best summed up in the words of music critic Robert Mathew-Walker:

“Heartbreak Hotel is a classic performance, yet when it is analyzed it appears so simple that one cannot recall a time when one did not know it.”

Music biographer Albert Goldman adds:

"The song, which is an extravagant and highly exaggerated account of the blues, was more a psychodrama than a musical performance."

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