This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #96: Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis Presley.
“Heartbreak Hotel” is a song that was spawned by a suicide note. In the early 1950s, a man in Florida discovered that his wife was cheating on him with another man. In despair, he took his own life. When the Police examined his body, they discovered a suicide note. That note simply stated, “I walk a lonely street”.
The story of that man’s death was reported in a local newspaper in Florida. The story was read by a music teacher named Mae Boren Axton. She was moved by the lyrical nature of the dead man’s final words and brought the idea to a songwriting friend of hers named Tommy Durden. They both thought that there might by a song hidden beneath the tragedy of this man’s story. As they worked on the lyrics, Mae Axton suggested that if they were going to place the setting of the song in the fictional locale of “Lonely Street” then, they needed to add detail to the location. So, with that in mind, she suggested they place a hotel at the end of the street. Durden suggested stated that the obvious name for this hotel should be “The Heartbreak Hotel”. And so, one of the most famous and important songs in the history of Rock n’ Roll came to be.
Once they had the song written, they took it to a friend who was a local singer. The idea was to make a demo tape and shop it around in the hope of selling the song. When their friend tried singing the song, he found it difficult to do so. “Heartbreak Hotel” is a song that was structured, musically, in a much different manner than most songs of the early 1050s. Those days were the days of the crooners. Frank Sinatra was King. Most songs had an orchestral or big band component to them. Songs were lush and full and often spoke of Love. “Heartbreak Hotel” is the opposite of all of that. It is a song that is stripped down and punctuated with many moments of silence. Axton and Durden’s friend found it difficult to get the proper cadence for their song but, after several frustrating takes, the demo tape was completed. It was now time to shop their tape in hopes of making a sale.
Axton used her connections in the music industry to pitch her song to many people; all of whom turned her down. In fact, many people thought that the song was actually pretty poor, as songs went in those days. After many rejections, Axton heard that there was to be a Country Music festival coming to her town. The headliner was Hank Snow but, on the bill was a newcomer named Elvis Presley. So, Mae Axton contacted Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker and asked if she could play their tape for his client when he was in town. Parker agreed. When Elvis heard the song, he immediately “got it”! He asked to listen to the song over and over again until he had the lyrics memorized and then, he sang it back to Axton. He agreed to buy the song from her if he could play with the lyrics and musical structure a bit. She agreed and thus, Elvis came to have a songwriting credit for “Heartbreak Hotel”.
The funny thing is how wildly different the reactions of others were to this new song. The BBC didn’t even consider “Heartbreak Hotel” worthy of being played because, in their words, it was of such “poor vocal quality”. Elvis’ new recording company, RCA Victor, thought it was a bad song, too. The only way Elvis got it to be recorded professionally was to convince his sound engineer to double-mic him so that he would be free to move around as he sang but the microphone would still be able to clearly pick up his voice. But, as much as Elvis was given resistance by the music industry, the reaction from the public was something else altogether. When he debuted “Heartbreak Hotel” in public, the sound of his voice, coupled with the wild gyrations of his hips, drove the crowd into a frenzy. As word spread of what Elvis was doing on stage, girls began fighting to touch him; often grabbing at his clothes to the point of ripping them to shreds. Young men such as John Lennon and Keith Richards reacted in a similar manner, except, that instead of wanting to rip off his clothes, they realized that new way of making music was happening right before their eyes. To a man, they claim that hearing “Heartbreak Hotel” for the first time, by a white man like them, made them feel as though the Blues were possible for guys like them, too. Prior to seeing/hearing Elvis, Lennon and Richards and Bob Dylan all thought the Blues were the sole purvey of Black singers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and so on. But now, when Elvis breaking down the barriers that he was doing, the whole world of, what was to become Rock n’ Roll as we know it, became possible.
So, out of one man’s heartbreak came one of the most important songs of all-time. To my knowledge, his family never received any compensation due to the fact that his story was, quite literally, “public news”. But, thanks to the imaginations of Mae Axton and Tommy Durden, just about everyone in the English-speaking world knows the answer to the question: “Where is The Heartbreak Hotel”? It is, of course, down at the end of Lonely Street.
Without further delay, here is Elvis Presley with one of the earliest known videos of him singing this song live, in public. Man Alive! That boy’s hips were made on a swivel! What moves! What a voice! This is the real deal. Enjoy!
The link to the video for the song, “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Elvis Presley, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.