Elvis – Heartbreak Hotel (1956)

This was the first song recorded by Elvis at RCA Victor. Elvis selected the song. He had earlier promised co-writer Mae Boren Axton that he would want to record it. He arrived at the studio with the song ready to record it without input from RCA. Although producer Steve Sholes was worried, he recorded the song taking it on faith that Elvis knew what he was doing. Most others at RCA Victor believed that it was a mistake, especially after hearing that the finished recording sounded nothing like the prior Elvis recordings at Sun Records.
On February 11, 1956, Presley introduced the song live on the CBS television variety program, Stage Show, starring Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. He also sang it on the show’s March 1 and March 24 broadcasts, and on his third (and final) appearance at The Ed Sullivan Show, also on CBS, on January 6, 1957. Cumulative viewers for these first television performances are estimated at over 60 million. In 1968, he also sang it on his celebrated Comeback TV Special, in a medley with “Hound Dog” and “All Shook Up”.
The song is an example of simple verse form based on the eight-bar blues progression. It was written by Thomas Durden, then a steel-guitarist in Smiling Jack Herring and his Swing Billies,[2] and Mae Boren Axton, a teacher at Dupont Jr.-Sr. High School in Jacksonville, Florida, and the mother of singer/songwriter/actor Hoyt Axton. She was a publicist for Hank Snow, who was managed by Colonel Tom Parker, who also managed Elvis Presley. Elvis Presley received co-songwriting credit for his contributions to the final recorded release.[3] In an interview, Durden conceded that he did not recognize the song after Elvis had made the changes to the song in the studio, including changes to the tempo, phrasing, lyrics, and overall sound.
“Heartbreak Hotel”‘s lyrical matter deals with the singer’s sadness, implicitly that following the end of a romantic relationship. It uses the metaphor of a hotel to represent this emotional state. Durden read about a suicide in the Miami Herald in 1955. A well-dressed man had removed all labels from his clothing, destroyed his identity papers and left a note saying: “I walk a lonely street.”[2]
Steve Sholes used a hallway at the studio to get a noticeably unusual echo for the single. Sholes was attempting to recapture the Sun Records sound however, Sam Phillips had used two tape recorders and a slight time delay to create the echo on prior Elvis recordings, unbeknowst to the RCA personnel.[4]
Because the vocals on the original record featured such a heavy use of reverb, the song was immediately lampooned in radio humorist Stan Freberg’s parody of the song, where the lead singer repeatedly asks for “more echo on [his] voice.” When Elvis recorded “Hound Dog” a few months later, he had completely taken over the role of producer, using what he learned at Sun Records (although Steve Sholes was still credited) and decided not to use echo.


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