Fifty years ago, on 12 May 1956, Elvis Presley made his UK chart debut with "Heartbreak Hotel". Up until then, the rock'n'roll records in the Hit Parade had been good-time novelties, but Presley's brooding presence and his menacing arrangement changed that. Popular music would never be the same again, but how did Presley come to make such a groundbreaking record?
Elvis Presley started recording for Sam Phillips' Sun label in Memphis in July 1954. Working with two country musicians, Scotty Moore on lead guitar and Bill Black on stand-up bass, the first single was "That's All Right". Selling heavily in the South, Elvis Presley made the US country Top 10 with the hiccuping "Baby Let's Play House" and followed it with an echo-drenched ballad, "I Forgot To Remember To Forget".
The folk singer Tom Paxton recalls an early concert: "Elvis was so new that the promoters didn't know what he was and so the supporting bill was of hard-core country and western acts. Nobody suffered the fate these poor people suffered. They were playing to kids who wanted Elvis and nothing but Elvis - it was awful for them."
Encouraged by his partner, Colonel Tom Parker, the country star Hank Snow had taken Presley under his tutelage in Hank Snow Jamboree Attractions. Presley impressed a 40-year-old publicist, Mae Boren Axton, when Snow's tour came to Florida in May 1955. She and a local musician, Tommy Durden, decided to write for him.
Durden showed her a story from the Miami Herald about a hotel guest who committed suicide and left the note, "I walk a lonely street". It could make a good blues song: a lonely man, a lonely street and a man's life is over. She added that it must be a "heartbreak hotel" and they completed the song within an hour. Axton asked Glen Reeves to cut a demonstration record. She offered him a songwriting credit, but he did it for free. In November 1955, Axton played the demo for Presley and he reacted instantly: "Hot dog, Mrs Axton, play that again!"
A 45-year-old executive, Steve Sholes, was keen to poach Presley for RCA. Phillips had five years to run on Presley's contract and Sholes offered him $35,000, plus $5,000 for Elvis himself. Phillips agreed because he had cash-flow problems and besides, he had faith in his new signings - Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
The press photographs in November 1955 are all smiles. Presley is giving his sensual, trademark smirk: Phillips and Sholes are blissfully happy: Presley's parents are blissfully bemused, and, most of all, Presley's new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, is the cat with the cream. Hank Snow expected a slice of the action but Parker had skilfully cut him out.
Sholes saw Presley could spearhead rock'n'roll music, offering an alternative to the square dance calling of Bill Haley and his Comets. Other executives were unsure: Sholes was out if the investment was not recouped within a year. Sholes reissued the Sun singles and the company took an ad in the trade paper, Billboard, calling Presley, "The most talked-about new personality in the last 10 years of recorded music."
Whilst retaining Sun's feel, Sholes wanted a fuller sound. RCA's Nashville studio was run by the distinguished country guitarist, Chet Atkins, and he booked the first session for 10 January 1956, two days after Presley's 21st birthday.
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"Steve Sholes conducted the buyout from Sun, and he was very smart as he bought all the masters," said Atkins. "He wanted me to get a band together. We kept Scotty and Bill, as they gave him his sound, and we added Floyd Cramer, DJ Fontana and myself, along with a vocal group."
RCA's main studio in Nashville was in constant use. In 1955 they had taken a lease on a decommissioned church at 1525 McGavock Street. It would be easier to capture the echo, and hence the excitement, of the Sun recordings in this building.
Phillips had used two recorders with a delay mechanism but Atkins, with his engineer Bob Ferris, moved into Heath Robinson territory. Scotty Moore recalls, "The studio had a long hallway down the front of the building with a tile floor and some glass. They had this great big speaker at one end and a microphone at the other and a sign telling people to be quiet when they came through the door."
Everybody should have been confident, but apprehension hung in the air. Sholes knew some executives were out to get him. Sun had released Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" and Sholes wondered if he had bought the right act. Chet Atkins wasn't sure he could replicate and improve on the Sun sound.
Elvis, Scotty and Bill were recording outside of Sun for the first time: Moore had learned guitar by copying Atkins' style and didn't relish playing in front of him. When asked for guidance, Atkins said, "I'm just playing rhythm. You go on doing what you've been doing." Coming from the Louisiana Hayride, both DJ Fontana and Floyd Cramer knew they were in a city full of musicians: Atkins had only to whistle. Just Bill Black seemed confident, chewing gum and cracking jokes.
Scotty Moore remembers, "It was a larger studio than Sun's and more regimented - they called everything by a tape number. We would sit around at Sun, eat hamburgers and then somebody would say, 'Let's try something.'"
Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman" was sung infectiously but Presley was moving around so the vocal levels varied, especially when dropping to his knees. Sholes said, "Hold it son, you're gonna have to stand still while you sing." Presley retaliated with "I'm sorry, Mr. Sholes, I don't feel right standing still." Ferris added two microphones so Presley could move. After eight takes, they had the master. Atkins told his wife to come down: "You'll never see anything like this again. It's so damn exciting."
"Heartbreak Hotel" started with Elvis, accompanied by a walking bass from Bill Black, reminiscent of Willie Dixon's work with Muddy Waters. Scotty Moore played assertively and Cramer's piano pattered like rain. Elvis broke down in each verse, effectively method acting like James Dean. The song was nailed on take seven, but sadly, most of the tapes were wiped. The influence of Johnnie Ray's "Cry" is self-evident and the song could be a parody. Presley's dirt-seeking bio-grapher, Albert Goldman, opined, "'Heartbreak Hotel', which is an extravagant and highly-exaggerated account of the blues, was more a psychodrama than a musical performance. As such, however, it was an extraordinary novelty and it moved rock music into another imaginative space."
"Money Honey" was a humorous, hard luck story, carried well by Presley and helped by Cramer's hammering notes. After three hours, they had three masters and broke up contentedly. The following day they recorded the emotional ballads, "I'm Counting On You" and "I Was the One" with a vocal group.
When Sholes took the tapes to New York, his bosses disliked them but he talked them into releasing "Heartbreak Hotel", and if it did not sell, he would push the more regular B-side, "I Was The One". Colonel Parker secured Axton's agreement that Presley could appear as a third writer on "Heartbreak Hotel".
In April 1956 "Heartbreak Hotel" became Presley's first American chart-topper, and made both the country and the usually-black R&B charts. The single was released in the UK to poor reviews. The New Musical Express said, "If you appreciate good singing, I don't suppose you'll manage to hear this disc all through." The Daily Mirror wrote about the Elvis phenomenon and then, in May, Elvis Presley made the UK chart and the single climbed to No 2.
In January 2006, a fiftieth anniversary reissue of "Heartbreak Hotel" topped the US chart. The anniversary was marred by the demolition of the Nashville studio for a parking lot, but its reverberations will continue. Paul Evans, who was to write for Elvis, nurses fond memories of "Heartbreak Hotel": "I can still hear my father shouting, 'Turn that damn radio down'. This was the first music to belong to just one generation. Rock'n'roll was a parting of the ways and a weapon in our hands. My generation celebrated our music and nobody else's."
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