Study Guide

Heartbreak Hotel Technique

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  • Music

    "Heartbreak Hotel" follows a basic eight-bar blues progression, and Presley generally started it with an E chord. In the recording done in the RCA studio he was backed up by his usual trio (Scotty Moore on guitar, Bill Black on bass, and D.J. Fontana on drums) as well as studio musicians Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer. Both Atkins, a guitarist, and Cramer, a pianist, would go on to have huge careers as musicians and performers.

    The musicians were first-rate, but the recording facilities were decidedly not. RCA's Nashville studio had recently relocated to a building on McGavock Street owned by the United Methodists. Not originally designed as a studio, the space suffered all sorts of acoustic problems. Bass player Black, in particular, struggled to find a spot where his low notes wouldn't bounce off the walls. 

    Nor was the studio equipped to electronically produce the echo sound that Presley had gotten used to while recording at Sun. To replicate it, the crew rigged up an echo chamber in a long hallway by placing a microphone at one end and a speaker at the other and recording the effect live.

  • Calling Card

    With such a large catalog and so many hits, it's difficult to declare one song Elvis Presley's calling card. Still, you could make the case that "Heartbreak Hotel" is that song.

    "Heartbreak Hotel" was the first song Presley recorded with RCA records and it was his first number one hit. The song was the first in a series of singles (including "Hound Dog") released in 1956 that would turn Presley into music's biggest star. It was the song that introduced him to a national and international audience, and the song that introduced him to aspiring musicians, like Keith Richards, who would cite Presley as their greatest influence. 

    "Heartbreak Hotel" is also one the few songs on which he shares a writing credit—although, as with the others, he actually played no part in the song's writing.

    "Heartbreak Hotel" is a good example of Presley's ability to transform the conventional genres that influenced him. The song is built on a basic eight-bar blues progression, so in the hands of a more conventional artist, it could have been straight blues number. Instead, Presley gave it an edge and an attitude. He converted a potentially plodding and morbid lament about heartache into a snarling, pulsing piece of rock and roll.

    In other words, "Heartbreak Hotel" summarizes Presley's real contribution to music, which was his ability to fuse several genres into a distinctive new sound. Presley drew from the blues, country, and gospel music to advance the development of rock and roll. He wasn't alone in this experiment, but he mastered the formula and delivered it successfully to huge audiences.

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