Jack Stapp, at the top of the Tree

10 Sep 2015

Perhaps the most overlooked part of the "Heartbreak Hotel" saga is the crucial issue of publishing rights. In 1950s popular music, the publisher often received the lion's share of the revenue, moreso than the writer and much moreso than the singer.

 

As such, the allocation of publishing rights was a hugely important decision. Composers usually wanted their songs to go to successful and dynamic publishers who would publicise their songs and increase their earnings.

 

Co-songwriter Mae Boren Axton always insisted she gave the rights to "Heartbreak Hotel" to her friend Buddy Killen on a momentary whim. Buddy was the  sole employee of Tree Publishing, one of the least successful publishing companies in Nashville.

 

Yet, Tree was owned by two succesful media businessmen, one of whom, Jack Stapp, was the key man at the Grand Ole Opry, the most popular hillbilly radio show of all time. He was no fool when it came to music or money, so why was his publishing company so remarkably poor?

 

Since its launch in 1951, Tree had obtained the rights to almost no hit songs whatsoever and they never featured in the annual list of top c&w publishers. In the summer of 1955, Buddy Killen signed promising newcomer Jim Reeves to a contract, but he was the only bright spot in an otherwise dull and failing company.

 

By June 1957, just eighteen months after obtaining the rights to mega-hit "Heartbreak Hotel", Jack Stapp was head of the fastest growing publishing company in Nashville and was able to leave his position at the Opry to focus full time on Tree.

 

And all of this happened apparently because Mae had a soft spot for Buddy Killen ...

 

[Jack Stapp picture copyright owned by Getty Images]

 

 

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