The Legend of Heartbreak Hotel
A brief precis of the story-behind-the-song, as it has been told for almost sixty years
In the summer of 1956, Elvis Presley and his hit record Heartbreak Hotel were the talk of the entertainment business. The explosive singer had risen from obscurity to worldwide fame in less than two years, and his remarkable debut release for RCA Victor Records sold millions around the world, ushering in the modern cultural era.
Journalists and listeners wondered what had inspired the writing of such an unusual and evocative song. The record label credited the composition to Mae Boren Axton (a music business publicity agent), Tommy Durden (a professional musician) and Elvis himself. Durden and especially Axton were always happy in the years that followed to re-tell the tale of how they came to write their signature hit …
In the autumn of 1955, Tommy Durden was moved by a short article in the Miami Herald newspaper which told of a mysterious and anonymous suicide. The unknown man had destroyed all evidence of his identity but had left a handwritten note which said, “I walk a lonely street”, and local police were asking for help to identify the victim.
Durden felt sure there was the germ of a song in that stark phrase and he brought the idea to friend and fellow composer Mae Boren Axton. She was also touched by the story and suggested they should put a Heartbreak Hotel at the end of that lonely street.
Axton, who knew the young hillbilly singer Elvis Presley, proposed they might write the song for the emerging star (Axton later claimed she'd had a premonition that she would write Elvis' first big hit record). Durden agreed but their efforts were interrupted by a visit from mutual friend Glenn Reeves (a deejay, songwriter and performer). Reeves, who thought the song title absurd, rejected an invitation to join the composing team, saying he had to run an errand but offered to drop in on his way back from town.
By the time he returned, the song was written – it took Mae and Tommy just twenty-two minutes – and Durden had already laid down a basic demo tape. Axton asked Reeves to record a better demo in a style similar to Presley’s own and she again offered the deejay a share in the rights. Reeves did tape a Presleyesque demo but he still demurred regarding a composing credit.
To make the song financially attractive to Presley, Axton and Durden decided to offer him a one-third writer’s credit, a common industry practice. Axton played the new demo for the fast-rising star in November 1955 and he was delighted with the song, agreeing to make it his first single if his recording contract was purchased by RCA Victor.
Despite other overtures, Axton gave the all-important lucrative publishing contract to her friend Buddy Killen at Tree Music, a small and relatively unsuccessful publishing house.
Presley recorded the song for RCA in January 1956 – re-inventing Reeves’ demo in a dramatic and striking fashion – and within five months it was the biggest-selling record in the country, eventually moving over 5 million copies.
Tree became one of the most successful music publishers of all time, Durden took an extended holiday funded by his first royalty cheque, and Axton tried to replicate their success with a solo composition, Welcome To The Club, but the song sounded like a pale repeat of Heartbreak Hotel and it sank without trace. Despite the enormous success of his first RCA Victor single, Presley never recorded another song by Axton or Durden and neither songwriter achieved notable success with any other composition or singer.
Over the years, as Presley’s fame continued to grow, the tale became the most famous story-behind-the-song in pop music history. After the singer’s death, almost every Presley biography included the saga, and Axton was always happy to re-tell the tale for each new interviewer, sometimes adding a little extra fact to paint a more detailed picture.
In 1983, the BBC broadcast its own documentary on the song. Axton and Durden were interviewed and a copy of the original Miami Herald newspaper article was apparently produced for the first time. The front page of the 1st October 1955 edition was displayed and it seemed to show the oft-quoted article, just as Axton and Durden had always suggested. For several years, this remained the accepted version of events: Peter Guralnick, for example, referred to it in his definitive 1994 Presley biography, Last Train To Memphis.
Closer examination, however, suggested that the BBC's front page had been doctored and the actual 1st October 1955 edition of the Miami Herald contained no reference to the suicide story at all. Why would the BBC fabricate such an obvious piece of evidence?
In more recent years, rumours have spread to the effect that Axton played little part in the creative writing process and acted more as a facilitator, making sure that the song reached the right people (Presley and / or his manager-elect, Tom Parker) in return for her own co-writing credit. There was further talk of Tommy Durden resenting the attention lavished on Mae Axton and wishing to clarify his position as the primary songwriter. When interviewed, however, Axton and Durden always re-affirmed the official legend, right up until their respective deaths in 1997 and 1999.
Sixty years after the fact, The Legend of Heartbreak Hotel is as mysterious and frustrating as ever ... What became of the newspaper article ... Who was the anonymous suicide ... When was the song written ... Who really wrote the song ... Why did Tree Music receive the publishing contract ... What part did Glenn Reeves actually play in the story ... How was Colonel Tom Parker involved ... Did Axton really have a premonition about the song ... Why did Durden later claim he'd written the song by himself ... Why were other singers offered the song before Presley ... ?
This is truly the last great mystery of rock 'n' roll. The forthcoming book will answer the questions, solve the mystery and finally reveal the truth . . . there is a tale to be told.
Picture credit, Don Cravens: Elvis holding his gold record for one million sales of Heartbreak Hotel, 14th April 1956.