Miami is a world famous Mecca of sun, sand, sex and fun outlandish decadence. It’s also a very dark town, haunted by real life zombies, third world-esque poverty and a long history of racial segregation and violence. Because of this entropic mix Miami boasts an impressive musical resume, birthing a mix of pirates, tropical wanderers and wayward sons that over the decades have created some of the most groundbreaking, influential and varying musical styles. With a long history of music innovation and violence, it’s no wonder that Miami shows up as the spark that helped create Rock n’ Roll – in the form of a Suicide note.
Late one night in some neon faded Art Deco beach hotel, an anonymous man killed himself leaving behind only a crumbled note in one of his jean pockets. On the note where the words “I walk a lonely street” his last ode to a cruel world. Little did he know his sacrificial death would soon give birth to a whole new generation of music lovers. His unidentified corpse was shown on the cover of the Miami Herald with the headline asking, “Do You Know This Man?” When exactly this suicide happened can’t be confirmed and a search of the Miami Herald Digital Archives hasn’t provided any help. We know that it was sometime in 1955 when Steel-guitar player, singer-songwriter and failed dishwasher repairman Tommy Durden read the Herald suicide article while working a gig in Jacksonville, Florida. Durden believed the suicide note’s line had a dark blues quality and scribbled it down as a future song lyric. He showed the article and the lyric to his friend Mae Boren Axton, herself a songwriter, TV personality, radio host and publicist. Mae immediately was drawn to the lyric, deciding that naturally at the end of a lonely street one would find a “Heartbreak Hotel” and with that verse, a light bulb of creativity exploded in the warm Florida air.
Mae wrote the rest of the lyrics while Durden worked out the melodies on his guitar. Within an hour the duo had composed one of the most important songs in the history of music. But Mae was more than just a schoolteacher and part-time songwriter; she was a visionary who saw the ‘big picture’ before anybody else. That ‘big picture’ was Elvis Presley and way before the Colonel turned him into a money making machine, Mae Axton was convinced that Elvis was going to be the biggest thing to hit America since the Model-T Ford. Mae first encountered Elvis during a tour she helped set up in Jacksonville, Florida when the relatively unknown Memphis singer was a last minute replacement booked to open for country recording star Hank Snow. As Elvis began his set, Mae Quietly blended in with the crowd at the Gator Bowl, and watched in awe as twenty-year old Elvis completely blew the audience away with his mix of hillbilly swag, bluesy crooning and pelvic shaking lunacy. After his performance, teenage girls chased Elvis back to the dressing room while managing to completely tear off the young stud’s shirt. The forty-year old Mae had never seen anything like that in her entire life. Nobody had. She quickly helped get Elvis booked for a return show on July 28, 1955, which caused excessive lines of teenage girls waiting to get inside and irate local preachers screaming about the dangers of Elvis’s shaking hips. After another smashing performance Mae interviewed Elvis for a local radio station. She was influential in helping get Elvis’s first record “That’s alright Mamma” radio airplay in Florida and during the interview the ‘King’ gratefully acknowledges this fact…
“Well, thank you very much, Mae, and I’d like to personally thank you for really promoting my record, because you really have done a wonderful job, and I really do appreciate it because if you don’t have people backing you, people pushing you, well you might as well quit.”
After the interview Mae boldly declared to Elvis that she would write his first number one hit. After concluding the “Heartbreak” writing session with Durden, a local Country singer named Glenn Reeves stopped by for a visit and was immediately put to work by Mae. She asked Reeves to record a demo of the song with her tape recorder in the style of Elvis Presley, Reeves wasn’t a fan but being a good friend did the song anyways. The fact that Reeves even knew who Elvis was, is a testament to how much buzz the ‘King’ had created for himself in the South. After finishing the song, Reeves thought “Heartbreak Hotel” was weird and that Elvis “wouldn’t go far” and declined any credit or association with the song. Mae had no intention of ever using Reeves anyways; she just wanted something to show Elvis in the hopes that he would record the song. She approached the popular country duo The Wilburn Brothers and offered them a chance to record a better quality version of “Heartbreak Hotel” but the duo declined, calling the song “Strange and almost Morbid”. With no choice but to hunt down the kid on her own, she headed to Nashville where Elvis was being honored as the most promising male country star of 1955 at the annual Country Music Disc Jockey Convention.
By this time the Colonel Tom Parker had weaseled his way to becoming Elvis’s manager, and shortly after Thanksgiving of 1955 secured for Elvis a record deal at RCA. Since Mae had worked with Tom before as a publicist in the early 50’s she was on familiar terms with the Memphis slickster. It’s even rumored that Mae is the only person in the world that the notorious Colonel Tom Parker has ever apologized to. After talking with Tom about a song she wanted Elvis to record she was told where to find the kid, and headed out in the rain towards the Andrew Jackson Hotel.
Elvis was relaxing in his room and in a jovial mood when Mae showed up with her tape-recorded demo. Upon hearing the rough sounding tape Elvis shouted, “Hot dog, Mae! Play it again!” mesmerized as he played the track about ten times in a row. Elvis said the song reminded him of Roy Brown’s “Hard Luck Blues” and agreed to record a version. Mae was delighted and the next day they sat down with the Colonel to hammer out a deal. Though the team of Mae and Durden are responsible for penning the song, Elvis’s name appears on the finished record as a third writer. It’s common knowledge that the Colonel often insisted his boy get co-writing credits in exchange for cutting a song. Always securing a steady stream of publishing checks for the two of them. However this wasn’t the case, Mae was so confident that “Heartbreak” would help establish Elvis as a star she insisted on a shared credit in order to help Elvis buy a house for his mother in Florida.
With formalities out of the way Elvis began to rehearse the song and added it his live repertoire, changing one line of the lyric, from “they pray to die” to “they could die” while performing the song for the first time in Swifton, Arkansas on December 9. The small club was packed with over 200 people and Elvis oozing with confidence after singing with RCA rocked the club to the floor. The club’s owner and everyone there could sense that something fresh was happening. The 20-year-old Elvis was already a regional star but he had yet to appear on national television. That night in the Arkansas club, Elvis burned through some tracks he’d recorded for Sun, a few covers, and then introduced his new song in that familiar Southern drawl, “I”ve got this brand new song and it’s gonna be my first hit.” His words were prophetic.
A month later Elvis entered the recording studios at RCA, where he was scheduled to record five songs in two days. The studio at 1525 McGavock Street was RCA’s first permanent recording facility in Nashville, a town still years away from becoming the recording center of the musical universe. Surprisingly, up to then there were only a handful of studios in town. It was January 10th, 1956 and Elvis Presley who two days prior just turned 21 was ready to begin recording his debut single for RCA. Mae was also present during the session; interested in watching Elvis record live and curious to how her song would end up sounding. At Sun Records, Elvis had been backed by Sentry Moore on guitar and Bill Black on bass. Later a drummer was added — a position eventually filled by D.J. Fontana on a permanent basis. At RCA, the Elvis combo was joined by legendary Nashville guitarist Chet Atkins on rhythm guitar and future Grammy winner Floyd Cramer on piano, along with a gospel trio consisting of Ben and Brock Speer of the Speer Family and Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires. They recorded on monaural equipment (single track) and the studio was somewhat of a live room with a curved ceiling that created low frequency problems causing bass notes to be boomy and roll around for a long time. They were always in search of a dead spot for the bass. They also had several large curtains hanging on the walls to help “deaden” the room.
They employed the use of movable “wall-like” baffles to isolate instruments to minimize sound bleeding into other mics. During that first session RCA was anxious to recreate the “slapback” echo effect that Sam Phillips had created at Sun. To add them to Elvis’s vocals Chet and engineer Bob Farris created a psuedo “echo chamber” by setting up a speaker at one end of a long hallway and a microphone at the other end and recording the echo live. It sounded strange to hear it as they were recording live because at Sun studios Sam used to add the effect afterwards. This technique failed to add anything special to the first two songs they recorded “I got a Woman” and “Money Honey” but as soon as they tried it out on “Heartbreak Hotel” goose pimples suddenly appeared on everybody’s skin. The heavy overdubbing of echo and the drummer’s rim shots created a powerful atmosphere of upbeat despair that effortlessly matched Elvis’s heart-rending vocal. It was a perfect blend of haunting lyrics and ghostly music set to the penetrating crooning of a man destined for greatness. During the opening lines to each verse when Elvis sings acapella, his voice is penetrating, dejected, and completely captures the alienation of disaffected youth. The dark track sounded like it belonged more on a Doors album than a lead single for RCA in 1956. The gloomy song was markedly different from anything Elvis had done previously at Sun Records and when his former label boss Sam Phillips heard an acetate from the Nashville session, he pronounced “Heartbreak Hotel” a “morbid mess.” Biographer Donald Clarke writes:
The sound quality of that first session was not good, and ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is the worst of them all. Chet Atkins played rhythm guitar and Floyd Cramer was added on piano, together with an entirely unnecessary vocal trio led by Gordon Stoker, lead singer of the Jordanaires. Scotty Moore’s guitar sounds exceptionally, irritatingly tinny, Cramer is too prominent and the whole track sounds like it was made underwater in a breadbox. It was a disgraceful recording for 1956 but a good song for Presley.
On hearing the new songs, the RCA executives in New York freaked out and wanted to scrap the sessions. They told producer Steve Sholes to turn around and head straight back to Nashville to re-record the tracks. Sholes later stated, “They all told me it didn’t sound like anything, it didn’t sound like his other records and I’d better not release it, better go back and record it again” But Elvis was unfazed and begged the grey-haired executives to trust his instincts and release “Heartbreak Hotel” as a single. Promising that if it sank he would be at their mercy for any song they wanted out of him. Elvis had that Southern charm, and he had it in spades. The RCA ‘brass’ relented and pressed ahead with the release, albeit with sizeable suspicions. Elvis clearly believed in it, certain that the song was the right one to catapult him into the big time.
It was properly mastered and released as a 45 single with the B-side “I was the One” on January 27, 1956 and went nowhere despite Elvis making his network television debut on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show. For the first month of its release “Heartbreak Hotel” barely registered on the pop charts and seemed to prove that the RCA executives were right. But that all changed when Elvis finally had the chance to perform the song on the popular Milton Berle Show. This performance from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hancock in San Diego California, rocketed Elvis to superstardom. His good looks, unique voice and swiveling hips sent the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Californian girls into a frenzy of screams, faints and tears. The men had never seen anything like it and the San Diego Police Chief announced that if Elvis ever returned to his city and performed in the way that he did he would be jailed for disorderly conduct. Like a meteor blast Elvis had hit the mainstream.
The fateful string of television exposure (a new medium) undoubtedly helped propel “Heartbreak Hotel” to the number-one spot on Billboard’s best-seller list 45 days after its release, where it stayed #1 for eight weeks. The song also reached number one on the country chart and number three on the R&B chart. It became Elvis Presley’s first Gold record selling more than a million copies just as Mae Axton had predicted. Considering this is the song that really introduced rock to the mainstream (white public) it’s amazing how dark the lyrics really are…
Well, since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell.
Its down at the end of lonely street at heartbreak hotel.
You make me so lonely baby,
I get so lonely, I get so lonely I could die.
And although it’s always crowded, you still can find some room.
Where broken hearted lovers do cry away their gloom.
Well, the bell hops tears keep flowin and the desk clerks dressed in black.
Well they been so long on lonely street they aint ever gonna look back.
“Heartbreak Hotel” put Elvis on the map, and helped forever alter the landscape of Popular Culture. He would perform the song during most of his live shows between 1956 and 1977, including a blistering rendition on his 1968 comeback special. Elvis performed it for the last time on May 29, 1977 at the Civic Center in Baltimore, Maryland. The song and alternative takes have been released on almost every Presley compilation album since the 60’s. In 1979, following Presley’s death, author Robert Matthew-Walker wrote, “Heartbreak Hotel became one of the legendary rock performances. For many people it is Elvis Presley, and it continues to excite and fascinate listeners. Heartbreak Hotel is a classic performance, yet when it is analyzed it appears so simple that one cannot recall a time when one did not know it.”
“Heartbreak Hotel” is one of the most influential songs of all time. It single handedly ushered in the era of Rock n’ Roll and influenced every key rock artist in its wake. In a 1975 interview, John Lennon recalled his friend Don Beatty introducing him to Presley’s music. Lennon said that his family rarely had the radio on, unlike other members of The Beatles who grew up under its influence. Beatty showed Lennon a picture of Presley that appeared along with the charts on the New Musical Express magazine, and Lennon later heard “Heartbreak Hotel” on Radio Luxembourg. Lennon said:
When I first heard “Heartbreak Hotel”, I could hardly make out what was being said. It was just the experience of hearing it and having my hair stand on end. We’d never heard American voices singing like that. They always sung like Sinatra or enunciate very well. Suddenly, there’s this hillbilly hiccuping on tape echo and all this bluesy stuff going on. And we didn’t know what Elvis was singing about… It took us a long time to work what was going on. To us, it just sounded as a noise that was great.
George Harrison credits “Heartbreak Hotel” with handing him a “rock n roll epiphany” when in 1956, at age 13, he overheard it being played at a neighbor’s house while riding his bike. Thus, it was “Heartbreak Hotel” that turned Harrison from a relatively well-mannered schoolboy into a guitar-crazed truant who would audition for John Lennon’s Quarrymen the following year.
The Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards stated in his 2010 autobiography, Life, that “Heartbreak Hotel” was one of the first rock and roll influences he had. Apart from Presley’s impact on him, Richards was even more impressed by Scotty Moore’s guitar playing, as well as the rest of the band. Richards says:
Good records just get better with age. But the one that really turned me on, like an explosion one night, listening to Radio Luxembourg on my little radio when I was supposed to be in bed and asleep, was “Heartbreak Hotel.” That was the stunner. I’d never heard it before, or anything like it. I’d never heard of Elvis before. It was almost as if I’d been waiting for it to happen. When I woke up the next day I was a different guy.
Led Zeppelin’s lead singer Robert Plant stated that the song “changed his life”. He recalled hearing it for the first time when he was eight years old:
It was so animal, so sexual, the first musical arousal I ever had. You could see a twitch in everybody my age. All we knew about the guy was that he was cool, handsome and looked wild.
Critic Robert Cantwell wrote in his unpublished memoir Twigs of Folly:
The opening strains of “Heartbreak Hotel”, which catapulted Presley’s regional popularity into national hysteria, opened a fissure in the massive mile-thick wall of post-war regimentation, standardization, bureaucratization, and commercialization in American society and let come rushing through the rift a cataract from the immense waters of sheer, human pain and frustration that have been building up for ten decades behind it.
Paul McCartney says, “It’s the way Elvis sings it as if he is singing from the depths of hell. His phrasing, use of echo, it’s all so beautiful. Musically, it’s perfect.”
With “Heartbreak Hotel” a certifiable smash Elvis Presley was on his way to superstardom. Over the years he begged Mae to write another song for him, but feeling she could never top “Heartbreak” Mae declined, content that her initial hunch about Elvis was right. Mae continued to write other minor hits through the 60s and 70s while maintaining a career as a schoolteacher and community activist. Proud to have set Elvis on his way but completely nonchalant about writing one of the most groundbreaking songs ever. In a 1982 interview, the song’s co-writer Tommy Durden said the song, “has paid the rent for more than 20 years.” Citing its cultural significance the Grammy’s inducted the song into their Hall of Fame and when then presidential candidate Bill Clinton (the first black president) made his famous appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992, he chose “Heartbreak Hotel” to play on his sax. He killed it, got the crowd hyped and secured the gig for the presidency. And to the deserted soul who took his own life in Miami, never knowing that his suicide note “I walk a lonely street” would forever change the world by helping to shape & create the phenomena of Rock n’ Roll – Thank You. Sadly, your loss was our gain. C’est la vie.