"Heartbreak Hotel": Before Elvis
The story of how “Heartbreak Hotel” came to be Elvis Presley’s first hit record is a long and fascinating tale.
At the root of the saga is the friendship of music business publicist Mae Boren Axton and deejay/performer Glenn Reeves. They wrote several songs together during the early-mid 1950s focusing on the world of hillbilly music, the specific genre in which they both worked. When they discovered the music of rising star Elvis Presley in 1955, however, they had no hesitation in writing a rockabilly tune which Glenn recorded in a definite Elvis-style, which was then released as an unsuccessful single.
It was Glenn who introduced Mae to Tommy Durden, a songwriter and professional musician, in mid-1955, and within a few short weeks Tommy brought an idea for a potential new composition to Mae at her home in Jacksonville.
Over the course of one short evening session, they wrote and demoed “Heartbreak Hotel”. It was an unusual song, full of deep emotional connections for both writers, and it really didn’t fit into any obvious genre. Lyrically, it had certain nods towards the blues (Tommy loved black music), but Mae’s hillbilly links kept pulling the song towards the other side of the musical fence. There wasn’t much going on tune-wise, and there was no middle-eight or bridge section, but Tommy loved it.
Mae wondered if it might be a suitable song for Elvis, but she recognised that the basic demo would not catch his attention. So, she approached her good friend Glenn and, remembering that he could easily slip into an “Elvis” voice, asked him to tape a new demo in a souped-up and more dramatic fashion, which he happily did.
Elvis first heard Glenn’s demo in November 1955 and instantly identified with the lyrics. Over the next month, he worked out an even more striking and dynamic arrangement and recorded his own era-defining version in January 1956.
Listen to the rough demos in the video above and then listen again to Elvis’ recording to understand the depth of his talent and vision, and observe how he took a simple sketch and transformed it into a masterpiece.
And for the full in-depth saga of the story-behind-the-song, please read Walk A Lonely Street.