Reviews for Walk A Lonely Street
Review by Paul Richardson, March/April 2021,
for Elvis: The Man and His Music and Now Dig This magazines
Nearly ten years in the making, Walk A Lonely Street is the most compelling, thought-provoking, original and unique book on Elvis Presley to have been published in recent years. Its principal remit is to present the history of "Heartbreak Hotel", the song that first brought Elvis to the world's attention in January 1956. However, this book is so much more than a study of a single tune or of one entertainer. As the author states in his foreword, this collection of several hundred stories -- chronologically presented and arranged into individual mini-chapters -- combines to document the history of country music from the time of the American Civil War, the role of women in the music industry, and countless other related topics.
This wide-ranging and epic work runs for 689 pages, contains approximately 200,000 words that are divided into three main sections, and features more than thirty illustrations of newspaper articles, assorted documents and rare photographs. The most poignant images relate to the death of Alvin Krolik, a 27-year-old artist and former Marine who was shot dead while trying to rob the Busy Bee Liquor Store in El Paso, Texas, on August 20th 1955. A few days later, a local newspaper covered the story and -- using words taken from his unpublished autobiography -- described Krolik in the article's title as a "Person Who Walked Lonely Street". This very report resonated with musician and songwriter Tommy Durden and it provided him with the inspiration for a song which, with some crucial input from Florida-based teacher and music promoter Mae Boren Axton, became "Heartbreak Hotel". The rest, as they say, is history.
The complete biography of "Heartbreak Hotel", and the individual stories of the people who contributed to its genesis and realisation, is told by Plews in methodical detail. This is the work of an author who has done significant original research, delving into resources held by archives across the States, making use of materials generously made available by the Axton estate, and conducting interviews with individuals who had important memories to share, It is also the work of an author who knows how to write, has a masterful control of his craft, and has taken incredible care to provide a meticulously checked and factually accurate book.
However, Walk A Lonely Street is far from being a dry academic tome or heavy reference work. Complete with complex, overlapping plot lines and a parade of interesting major and minor characters who command attention, it is as compelling a read as a best-selling work of crime fiction. The book also contains some light touches of pithy humour, and, where essential to the narrative, it seamlessly melds pure historical research with creative writing.
One standout section -- titled with a dose of irony as "Steve Sholes Worst Day Ever" -- concerns the activity inside the RCA studio at 1525 McGavock Street in Nashville, Tennessee, on January 10th 1956. It was on this date that Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, joined for the first time on a session by D.J. Fontana, and with additional support provided by Chet Atkins on guitar and Floyd Cramer on piano, recorded "Heartbreak Hotel" and two other masters, "I Got A Woman" and "Money Honey". Across nine pages, beginning on p. 499, Plews recreates the full session in splendid and atmospheric detail from the initial handshakes and friendly chitchat in the early afternoon until the time, more than eight hours later, when RCA executive Steve Sholes switched off the lights and closed the studio door. This is an exceptional study of Elvis at work and one that, without any hint of exaggeration, surpasses the admittedly excellent accounts of the same event in Peter Guralnick's Last Train To Memphis and Ernst Jorgensen's A Life In Music.
Walk A Lonely Street teems with more than its fair share of enlightening and acutely perceptive insights, which do not necessarily concern "Heartbreak Hotel". For example, nestled just before the work's halfway point is a section that deals with Elvis' July 5th recording of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right". As Plews reveals, Elvis' take on this blues standard is not what it seems to be. It is, in fact, a compilation of as many as five Crudup recordings that were blended with some original Presley words. The startling conclusion reached is that, far from spontaneously covering an old number, Elvis turned up at 706 Union Avenue that evening with his own song, a pre-prepared "Crudup montage -- a medley of Crudup lyrics and new Crudupesque phrases -- in the hope that Mr. Phillips would invite him to sing it" (p. 300). Should anyone need to provide eveidence of Elvis' originality, then look no further than this particular chapter.
If there were an award for the best Elvis-related book of the past year, Walk A Lonely Street would be an automatic contender to win. In a time when the trend seems to be one of producing extravagant, limited edition audio-visual packages that come with wallet-busting price tags, it is refreshing to see on the market an intelligent book that does not cost an arm and a leg to buy and which treats the text as king. Tony Plews deserves to be congratulated for his efforts and, if you are in any doubt, is unreservedly recommended to every reader of this magazine.