Long before Elvis Presley’s If I Can Dream album or his Las Vegas shows in the 1970s, Elvis performed with an orchestra to sing a jazzy version of “Heartbreak Hotel”. While most would agree that the result was less than desirable, the performance of Presley with the Dorsey Brothers orchestra in 1956 was actually the first time he had ever performed the song on national TV.
On February 11, 1956, Elvis made his third appearance on Stage Show, a musical variety show hosted by big band leaders and brothers, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey. Even though Elvis had performed twice already on January 28 and February 4, 1956, he did not sing his newest single, “Heartbreak Hotel”, until the February 11 show.
It was surprising that Elvis waited for his third appearance to perform Heartbreak Hotel since it had been released on January 27. Author Allen J. Wiener explains in his book, Channeling Elvis, that “it may be that Elvis hadn’t sufficient time to rehearse the song” to perform it on his initial Stage Show live performance.
Although The Dorsey Brothers liked Elvis on a personal level, they did not like his music. In fact, they pleaded with the show’s producer, comedian Jackie Gleason, to not have him on any additional shows, according to June Taylor of The June Taylor Dancers, who performed on all six shows that Elvis appeared on.
“They were begging Jackie every single week to take him off the show,” Taylor said, “but Jackie said ‘No! He’s a big hit!'” Gleason even chose to extend Presley’s contract to appear on two additional shows after the first four appearances.
Before each TV appearance, Elvis and his band, which included guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana, would rehearse their performance in front of the Dorsey Brothers. Someone made the decision to allow the Dorsey Brothers orchestra to take over the instrumentation for “Heartbreak Hotel” that night and basically leave Elvis’ band out of the song.
Most disturbing is that Scotty’s guitar riff, an integral part of the song that sets a bluesy tone, was replaced by horns, and the famous guitar solo by Scotty was replaced by an out-of-place trumpet solo. If John Lennon and Keith Richards had heard this version of “Heartbreak Hotel”, they would have surely cringed.
“The Dorsey orchestra unintentionally sabotages the number by playing along with Elvis, whose own combo is out of sight and barely heard,” Wiener describes. “On its own, either style of music is palatable, but together they clearly constitute a melodic train wreck.”
Elvis’ performance was electrifying as usual as he tries to make the best out of the awkward-sounding music coming from behind him on stage. This historic moment on television was clearly a symbol of how the old-time mainstream performers would soon be seen as outdated, making room for the younger generation of music stars.
Luckily, the next two times Elvis performed “Heartbreak Hotel” on Stage Show, his band was center stage playing the song, while the big band orchestra can only be heard faintly in the background. In this one simple example, it seems like the older generation’s futile attempt to take the edge out of rock and roll quickly failed. As they soon would realize, there would be no stopping Elvis Presley or rock and roll!
For more fascinating Elvis Presley stories, check out the author’s book, ELVIS: Behind The Legend: Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music