"Heartbreak Hotel" was Elvis Presley's first #1 hit, closely followed by many others, including "Hound Dog." Released in January 1956, it introduced a string of chart-toppers that sent the hip-shaking performer into the pop music stratosphere. Rolling Stone later put it at #45 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame labeled it one of the songs that shaped rock and roll.
However, this ballad with a morbid edge wasn't at all what RCA Records expected from their young rockabilly when they signed him in November 1955, and the song had its roots in people and events that hardly seemed likely to make music history.
Our story begins with Mae Boren Axton, who taught high school English in Jacksonville, Florida. At 41, she wasn't exactly young herself, but she understood young people, and she understood popular music. Her wide-ranging expertise earned her a weekly radio show, and she parlayed this into some music promotion work on the side. For example, whenever promoter Colonel Tom Parker brought a show to northeast Florida, he always asked Axton to drum up interest.
In other words, Axton was a teacher with some serious connections. Fortunately for Elvis, she also had a nose for a hot record. Her inspiration in 1955 came from a news item about a recent suicide. A man had jumped to his death from a Miami hotel window leaving a poetic note behind: "I walk a lonely street."
Axton and her songwriting partner Tommy Durden decided that the lonely street deserved a hotel, and within an hour, they had written their classic. (Source)
Axton's next step was to convince Elvis to record it. During 1955, Elvis had gone from being a Memphis kid with a local reputation to a full-blown national phenomenon. Weekly appearances on the Louisiana Hayride had turned Elvis into music's most promising young star (he hadn't made it to the Grand Ole Opry—they said he didn't have the stuff). All the major labels wanted him, but RCA won the rights by buying out his Sun contract for an incredible $40,000.
For some perspective, that was enough money to buy about 20 new cars.
Axton's old promoter buddy, Tom Parker, had recently signed on as Presley's adviser, so he arranged for Axton to meet Presley at the annual Country Music Disc Jockey Convention in Nashville. Bearing her goldmine demo, Axton met the rising star at his hotel. Presley loved the song and begged Axton to play it over and over again until he had it memorized. Then the schoolteacher sweetened the offer: She would give Elvis a writing credit if he agreed to make "Heartbreak Hotel" his first single with RCA. Elvis agreed.
RCA, of course, wasn't amused. The label had expected more of the high-energy, hip-grinding rockabilly music that Presley had recorded at Sun—songs like "That's All Right" and "Good Rockin' Tonight." Instead, they got "Heartbreak Hotel," a downbeat, down-mood song about loneliness and death. Imagine the reaction of the RCA executives when they learned they had shelled out $40K for a song about some seedy dive where "broken hearted lovers...cry away their gloom."
In his earlier songs, Elvis had made teenage girls swoon with an invitation to "meet me in a hurry behind the barn." Now he described a death house where "the bell hop's tears keep flowin' / and the desk clerk's dressed in black."
Even worse, the song contained a thinly veiled reference to suicide. This most troubling line would be massaged on the final recording, but even with the safer version, how would parents respond to a song about people "so lonely they could die"? RCA told producer Steve Sholes to record something more upbeat. Elvis, though, was having none of it. He insisted on releasing the song.
The song may not have been what the record executives pictured, but it had the makings of a hit. Elvis knew it, Mae knew it, producer Sholes eventually saw it, and immediately, millions of kids felt it. Keith Richards, the celebrated guitarist for the Rolling Stones, said that "Heartbreak Hotel" hit him "like an explosion one night" while listening to his radio, "when I was supposed to be in bed and asleep. That was the stunner" (Source, 58).
What stuns us most about Richards' account is that the notoriously hard-living rocker once had an enforced bedtime, but right now we want to focus on his account of the song's transformative impact. "I'd never heard it before, or anything like it. I'd never heard of Elvis before. It was almost as if I'd been waiting for it to happen. When I woke up the next day I was a different guy."
The people at RCA had failed to see that Elvis could turn even a dark ballad into a hip-pumping piece of rock and roll. Since the song followed a basic blues progression, there was gap at the end of the first and second bars just long enough for a couple of quick little moves. When vocals drop out after a couple verses for a guitar solo, these moves could become an 8.4 shake.
RCA also failed to realize that beyond the shuddering and shaking, Elvis knew how to deliver even a morbid song with attitude. At Elvis' hotel, the bellhops may be crying, the clerks may dress in black, and the guests may sometimes pray to die, but they all do it with some attitude.
In the end, then, Axton's and Presley's instincts proved more sound than those of the RCA executives. Released in late January 1956, the song topped the pop charts by April and held the number one spot for two months. "Heartbreak Hotel" also claimed the top spot on the country charts and reached #5 on the R&B charts.
Of course, that was a long time ago. Elvis is long dead (although Keith Richards still, somewhat miraculously, survives). In spite of its years, the song continues to speak to young people in a distinctive way. It has been covered in every decade: It was Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s, Willie Nelson and Leon Russell in the 1970s, Guns N' Roses in the 1980s, and Bon Jovi in the 1990s.
Nor are musicians the only ones who recognize the song's ongoing appeal to young people. When presidential candidate Bill Clinton appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992 to woo the youth vote, he honked through a version of "Heartbreak Hotel" on his sax.
Now allow us a tangent to describe just a little more of the crazy music mojo that hovered over Mae Boren Axton and the Jacksonville, Florida, school system. Mae's own son, Hoyt, would go on to a career as a country music singer. His biggest hit came in 1973 with "Boney Fingers," but he achieved even greater success as a songwriter, penning songs for Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, and Ringo Starr.
Hoyt didn't actually attend the school his mother taught at, which was Paxon High; he went to Robert E. Lee High School. He graduated in 1956, and a year later, a former Robert E. Lee athlete named Leonard Skinner returned to his alma mater to teach physical education. Over the years, Skinner earned a reputation as a stickler for discipline, notably taking it upon himself to enforce the school's no-long-hair policy during the rebellious 1960s.
Some of his students, members of a garage band named My Backyard, eventually mock-honored their old coach by renaming their band Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Source) Bringing it all full circle, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded a version of "Heartbreak Hotel" for their Endangered Species album in 1994.
We like to think Elvis—or should we say Elvys?—would be proud.