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
3 thoughts on “When Elvis Presley sang ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on TV for the first time, it was a peculiar jazzy version”
Sorry not buying this. It was Gleason who took an instant dislike to Elvis and the Dorsey Brothers who pushed to have him on. The they tried to sabotage Elvis is garbage. I’ve seen a clip of him on the show doing Heartbreak Hotel. He did just fine. And guess what? They rehearsed it. It might not have been to the rock purist liking but that doesn’t make it a bad performance because they didn’t get it.
If Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey (and I mean especially Tommy) had felt that strongly than Elvis would not have been on for six shows. Period. Dorsey was quoted as saying he didn’t really care for rock and roll (news flash Tommy felt the same way about jump music and bebop) but said the kids want Elvis and they’re going to have him.
With all due respect to June Taylor she’s not going to show Gleason in a negative spotlight. It’s easy to put the blame on the Dorsey Brothers. Those photos of Elvis grinning ear to ear as he sings with Tommy and Jimmy playing should give you a clear indication that what she stated was not the case.
Interesting comment. Just to clarify the article says the Dorsey Brothers “unintentionally” sabotaged that version of Heartbreak Hotel (which is now added to the article). Also, Jackie Gleason seemed to like Elvis enough to visit him in 1962 on the set of Girls, Girls, Girls.
It was a jazzier version of Heartbreak Hotel which they rehearsed with Elvis. This wasn’t something out of the blue. On top of that what sabotage? I saw that clip. Elvis rode what they were doing. Sounded good to me. By the way his original recording of Heartbreak Hotel is blues with serious jazz overtones ( Bill Black’s walking bass and Floyd Cramer’s piano solo).
And yes by ’62 Gleason was no longer antagonistic towards Elvis just like Sinatra. Frank excoriated Elvis even getting personal when he arrived on the scene. By ’60 Sinatra put that aside and welcomed Elvis back from the Army. Over time many of the established entertainment figures mellowed towards him.
Tommy and Jimmy did not share their hangouts. Keep in mind they didn’t need Stage Show. Gleason asked them to do it. The Dorsey Brothers still had plenty of venues where they remained popular.
Elvis was well aware of who he was dealing with and what they did for his career.
Thanks for your response Trina.
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