Obituary: Tommy Durden

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WITH "HEARTBREAK Hotel", Elvis Presley became an international star and, like Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock", the song is identified with the initial surge of rock'n'roll. Yet one of its three listed songwriters, Tommy Durden, never wrote another hit record.

In 1950 in Jacksonville, Florida, Tommy Durden, the guitarist in a local band, began songwriting with Glen Reeves and a schoolteacher and radio DJ, Mae Boren Axton. Axton also worked as a publicist for Colonel Tom Parker's client Hank Snow and she saw his new signing, Elvis Presley, in concert in May 1955. Presley said he was looking for songs.

Durden read a story in the Miami Herald about an unidentified man who committed suicide in a hotel, leaving a note which read, "I walk a lonely street." He suggested that it could make a blues song, and Axton added that it must be a "heartbreak hotel" and that they should write it for Presley. They completed "Heartbreak Hotel" within an hour, and Axton asked Glen Reeves to record a demo. She asked him to copy Presley's mannerisms and offered him a third of any royalties. Reeves said he would do it for nothing.

In November 1955, Axton attended a radio convention in Nashville. She played the demo to Presley, his reaction being "Hot dog, Mae, play that again!" He heard the song 10 times by which time he knew the lyric. Through Colonel Parker, Axton offered Presley a songwriting credit, and thereby a third of the royalties, if "Heartbreak Hotel" was the first single for his new label, RCA. Durden remarked, "I was convinced when I heard the record that Elvis was even breathing in the same places that Glen did on the dub."

In April 1956 "Heartbreak Hotel" was Elvis Presley's first national hit and it became the first record to top the US pop, country and rhythm and blues charts. "Heartbreak Hotel" has been recorded by Ann-Margret, Chet Atkins, Pat Boone, Delaney And Bonnie, Adam Faith, Frijid Pink, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson and Conway Twitty. Some versions sound like parodies, while calculated parodies have come from Stan Freberg and Homer and Jethro.

Durden published just 20 songs and the only one remembered today is "Honey Bop", which he wrote with Axton and Reeves for Wanda Jackson in 1960. He became the steel guitarist for the pop singer Johnny Tillotson and in 1977, on Presley's death, he recorded a tribute single, "Elvis", to the tune of "Love Me Tender".

In 1992, Axton started a record label, DPI; her 17-year-old discovery Mario Martin sang "Wasted Time, Wasted Tears", which she had written with Durden.

Thomas Durden, musician and songwriter: born 1920: married: died Bay City, Michigan 17 October 1999.