Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis Presley: I feel so lonesome, baby, I could... sing

Behind every great song there is a story: how it came to be written, who inspired it, what folly or flight of fancy? Today we start a ten-part series on some of the classic pop singles of all time.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Today: Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis


First released: 27 January, 1956

Highest UK chart position: 2

Highest US chart position: 1

Without Elvis Presley, there would have been no white rock'n'roll. And when you consider that "Heartbreak Hotel", his first US chart-topper, followed orchestral instrumentals by Nelson Riddle and Les Baxter and was succeeded by ballad singer Gogi Grant's "The Wayward Wind", it becomes apparent that he was breaking new ground. The record was cut on Elvis's first sessions for a new label, RCA Records, who had paid a then astronomical $40,000 to buy out his contract from Sun.

The woman with the original idea for the song was Mae Boren Axton, mother of future folk star Hoyt and the public relations person to Elvis's manager Tom Parker. She told Parker's new protege `You need a million-seller - and I'm going to write it for you.

And that, with the help of Tommy Durden, is what she did. Somewhere along the line Elvis took a share of the three-way credit but it's possible Parker may have had a hand in that: the extent of Presley's input is unclear.

What is known is that the song had its roots in reality - Durden had come up with a newspaper story about a suicide victim who had left a note containing the line "I walk a lonely street".

Mae took the metaphor one step further by locating a hotel of the title at the end of this lonely street - and that proved the key to inspiration, the pair committing the song to tape in 22 minutes flat.

Mae Axton called Elvis. He was fascinated that her prediction had come true, and asked for the tape to be replayed ten times until he had memorised the lyric and arrangement. From there, it was a short step to the RCA studios to cut the song on 10 January 1956. Producer Steve Sholes was taking no chances on losing any of the Presley magic that had turned his Sun label releases into country hits, and had assembled the usual instrumental crew of guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer DJ Fontana, augmented by pianist Floyd Cramer and an additional guitarist, the legendary Chet Atkins. The song was rush-released barely a fortnight after recording.

`Behind The Song' by Michael Heatley and Spencer Leigh is published by Blandford at pounds 14.99. `Independent' readers can buy the book for pounds 12.99 (including p & p). To order: 01624 675137.