The impact of Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ 60 years later
Heartbreak Hotel “put Elvis Presley on the show business map and altered pop culture forever.” – Ace Collins, Untold Gold
While most music historians agree that the first rock and roll record was “That’s All Right” by Elvis Presley released in July 1954, the record that really shook the world was “Heartbreak Hotel” released 18 months later.
On January 27, 1956, Elvis Presley’s first RCA single “Heartbreak Hotel” was released. The King of Rock and Roll would release a non-typical rock and roll song which would influence a generation of rock and roll stars. Not to mention the sensuality evoked on the song would “mark the rise of Elvis Presley as a major sex symbol.”
Elvis interpreted the song, not with his usual rockabilly or country style, but with “pure blues which could be heard in his tone and pacing,” says author Ace Collins. “His voice sounded mournful, his pain was obvious, and his loss could be felt in the words.”
As authors Samuel Roy and Tom Aspell explained, the bluesy and brooding feel of the song was “so different that people around the world sat up and took notice…. There has rarely been a more riveting portrait of lost love.”
The song had a huge impact on many young British male teenagers. Some would become the next generation of rock stars, like John Lennon, who said: “It was Elvis who really got me hooked for beat music. When I heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ I thought, ‘this is it’.”
“When I first heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’,” John Lennon said, “I could hardly make out what was being said. It was just the experience of hearing it and having my hair stand on end. We’d never heard American voices singing like that. They always sang like Sinatra or enunciate very well. Suddenly, there’s this hillbilly hiccuping on tape echo and all this bluesy stuff going on. And we didn’t know what Elvis was singing about … It took us a long time to work what was going on. To us, it just sounded as a noise that was great.”
Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones said: “But the one that really turned me on, like an explosion one night… was ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ That was the stunner. I’d never heard it before, or anything like it. I’d never heard of Elvis before. It was almost as if I’d been waiting for it to happen. When I woke up the next day I was a different guy.”
Shockingly, it was two unknowns, not professional songwriters, who collaborated to write the song. Mae Axton handled public relations for Colonel Parker in Florida at the time. She was a witness to Elvis’ early stardom and wanted to write a song for him.
She brainstormed with a local singer, Tommy Durden, to come up with a new song. Durden showed her a newspaper article about a man who had jumped out of a hotel window to his death. The unidentified man left a handwritten suicide note that said “I walk a lonely street.” Axton and Durden got the idea for “Heartbreak Hotel” from this tragic real-life story.
Axton promised Elvis that he would get songwriting credit on the song, and Elvis promised Mae that “Heartbreak Hotel” would be his first RCA single. Both kept their promise, even though Elvis faced opposition from RCA about releasing the song.
According to writer Randy Fox of Vintage Rock Magazine, even Sam Phillips, who had just sold Presley’s recording contract to RCA, thought “Heartbreak Hotel” would be a flop. It was only because of Elvis’ strong belief in the song that convinced A&R man, Steve Sholes (who didn’t like the song either) to release it as Presley’s first RCA single – and the rest is history.
After Presley sang “Heartbreak Hotel” on The Milton Berle Show on April 3 (as shown above), the song flew up the charts. On April 28, 1956, the song hit number one in the U.S. and remained there for 8 weeks. At the end of 1956, Billboard rated it as the year’s number one single.