"Heartbreak Hotel" is a song that changed the world. It launched Elvis Presley as an international star and created a much-emulated sound. It assured Mae Boren Axton, who co-wrote the song, of a regular income, although she remained one of the most industrious people in Nashville.
She was born Mae Boren in 1914 in Bardwell, Texas, but was raised in Oklahoma. There were many politicians within her family - her brother, David, became a state senator. She obtained a degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma and then worked for Life magazine as a reporter. In the mid-Thirties, she married a schoolteacher, John Axton, who liked to sing for pleasure (their son, Hoyt, who was born in 1938, became a musician).
By 1950 she was teaching in Jacksonville, Florida and started songwriting with two local musicians, Tommy Durden and Glen Reeves. She also worked as a publicist for Hank Snow, a client of the music promoter Colonel Tom Parker, and saw Parker's new signing, Elvis Presley, in concert in May 1955.
Her songwriting partner, Tommy Durden, read a story in the Miami Herald about a man who committed suicide in a hotel and left a note which said, "I walk a lonely street." He suggested to Axton that it could make a good blues song. She replied that it must have been a "heartbreak hotel" and that they must write the song for Presley. They completed "Heartbreak Hotel" within an hour, and Axton asked Glen Reeves to cut the demo for Presley. She offered him a share of the royalties but he declined to take it.
In November 1955, Axton, who was also working as a disc jockey, playing country music, attended a radio convention in Nashville. While there, she played the demo to Elvis Presley. His reaction was, "Hot dog, Mae, play that again!" He heard the demo 10 times over, by which time he had memorised the song. Axton knew Presley was about to move to RCA Records and she offered him a song-writing credit for "Heartbreak Hotel", and thereby a third of the royalties, if he made it his first single with RCA.
In April 1956 "Heartbreak Hotel" became Elvis Presley's first American chart-topper and set him up as an international star. Strangely, Presley never recorded any more of Axton's songs, although he did cover a song by her son Hoyt, "Never Been To Spain". Within weeks of its success, "Heartbreak Hotel" had been brilliantly satirised by Stan Freberg. Another, less funny parody was "Heartbroke Motel" by Homer and Jethro.
To date, "Heartbreak Hotel" has been recorded by artists including Ann- Margret, Chet Atkins, Pat Boone, Delaney and Bonnie, Adam Faith, Frijid Pink, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson with Leon Russell, John Cale, the Portsmouth Sinfonia and Conway Twitty. Some of these versions also sound like parodies, and none of them come close to Presley's. The song also inspired "Lonely Street" by Andy Williams and "Lonesome Town" by Rick Nelson.
Neither Axton nor Durden ever came up with other compositions as successful as "Heartbreak Hotel". Axton's other songs were relegated to B-sides or album fillers and are hardly known at all: "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down" (Patsy Cline), "What Do I Know Today" (Hank Snow) and "Honey Bop" (Wanda Jackson). Durden became the steel guitarist for the pop star Johnny Tillotson. In 1977, on Presley's death, Durden recorded a tribute record, "Elvis", to the tune of "Love Me Tender". At the same time, Axton wrote the sleeve notes to an Elvis tribute album, The King Is Gone, by Ronnie McDowell.
Axton continued in publicity and radio work and, as her son Hoyt remarked, "Our house was like Grand Central Station." In 1963 Hoyt had his first success with "Greenback Dollar" for the Kingston Trio and he has since recorded several albums of his own material and become an established film actor.
Although she did not write an autobiography, in 1973 Axton published a memoir, Country Singers As I Know 'Em (1973). In 1992, she started a record label, DPJ, and released albums by Hoyt Axton and Mel McDaniel. One of her discoveries, the 17-year-old singer Mario Martin, released "Wasted Time, Wasted Tears" (1994), which Axton had written with Durden.
Mae Boren (Mae Boren Axton), songwriter: born Bardwell, Texas 14 September 1914; married John Axton (two sons); died Hendersonville, Tennessee 9 April 1997.
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