About the song
If you are a fan of rock and roll, you probably know the song “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley. It was his first single on RCA Victor, the record label he signed with in 1955 after leaving Sun Records. It was also his first number one hit on the Billboard pop chart, and one of the best-selling singles of 1956. But do you know the story behind this iconic song? How did it come to be written, recorded and released? And what impact did it have on Elvis’ career and the music industry? In this blog post, we will explore the history of “Heartbreak Hotel” and its significance in the evolution of rock and roll.
The song was inspired by a newspaper article about a man who committed suicide by jumping from a hotel window. The article, which appeared in several papers in 1955, quoted a line from his unpublished memoir: “This is the story of a person who walked a lonely street.” This phrase caught the attention of Tommy Durden, a Nashville songwriter and steel guitar player who had once worked as a dishwasher repairman. He shared it with Mae Boren Axton, another songwriter and a high school teacher who had connections in the music business. Together, they wrote the lyrics for “Heartbreak Hotel”, imagining the hotel as a place where broken-hearted people go to end their lives. They also gave Elvis Presley a co-writing credit in exchange for his agreement to record the song.
Elvis recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” on January 10, 1956, at RCA’s Nashville studio. He was backed by his regular band, the Blue Moon Boys, as well as guitarist Chet Atkins and pianist Floyd Cramer. The producer was Stephen H. Sholes, who had signed Elvis to RCA after buying his contract from Sun for $35,000. The recording session was tense, as Elvis was nervous about his new label and his band was unfamiliar with the new song. It took them eight takes to get a satisfactory version of “Heartbreak Hotel”. The song had an unusual structure, with an eight-bar blues progression and heavy reverberation that gave it a haunting sound. Elvis sang it with a deep and emotional voice that conveyed the loneliness and despair of the lyrics.
The song was released as a single on January 27, 1956, with “I Was the One” as the B-side. It received mixed reviews from critics, some of whom praised Elvis’ vocal performance and originality, while others dismissed it as “a morbid, exaggerated affair” or “a plain blues item”. However, the public loved it and made it a huge hit. It reached number one on the Billboard pop chart on April 21, 1956, and stayed there for eight weeks. It also topped the country and western chart for 17 weeks and reached number three on the rhythm and blues chart. It sold over one million copies in its first year of release and became Elvis’ first gold record.
“Heartbreak Hotel” was more than just a hit song; it was a cultural phenomenon that catapulted Elvis to national fame and established him as a rock and roll star. It also marked a turning point in his musical style, as he moved away from his Sun roots and embraced a more mainstream sound that appealed to a wider audience. The song influenced many other artists who followed Elvis’ footsteps in rock and roll, such as Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and The Beatles. It also inspired countless covers by various genres of music, from country to punk to reggae.
“Heartbreak Hotel” is widely regarded as one of the greatest songs of all time. In 1995, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as a recording of lasting quality or historical significance. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it number 45 on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. That same year, it was also included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “The 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”. The song remains a classic example of Elvis’ musical genius and charisma, and a testament to his enduring legacy as the King of Rock and Roll.