“The Lord can give, and the Lord can take away. I might be herding sheep next year.”
Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley
RCA 47-6420 (USA) / HMV POP 182 (UK)
Released 27 January 1956
Writers Mae Axton, Tommy Durden & Elvis Presley
Producer Steve Sholes
USA #1 21/4/56 8 weeks UK #2 6/56
One of the most important days in popular music history was Tuesday, January 10th 1956, the day Elvis Aaron Presley first recorded at RCA’s Nashville studios, a converted church. He was soon to become one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century, and indeed during the year that followed the release of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, his first 6 RCA recorded singles all went to the top of the US charts, spending a total of 6 months at Number 1 – a remarkable achievement. The previous November, his new manager “Colonel” Tom Parker (an illegal immigrant and music business hustler who’d never been in the forces) had negotiated the sale of Presley’s Sun Records contract to RCA for $35,000, the most that a record company had paid for an artist up to that point. Under the terms of the contract, RCA acquired all the tapes of Elvis in Sun’s possession, while Elvis himself also received a $5000 dollar signing-on fee (actually royalties owed him by Sun), part of which he used to buy a Cadillac. Other labels bidding for Elvis’s services included Capitol, Chess, Mercury and Atlantic. Jerry Wexler at Atlantic recalled that he was somewhat relieved at the time when RCA overbid him by $5000 because he had no idea where the money would have come from! RCA got all their money back with considerable interest when Presley’s very first new release for the company went to Number 1 and sold a million copies. Incidentally, Parker, who managed Presley throughout his lifetime, may have subsequently made even more money than his artist, not an unusual situation in the management business during the 1950s and 1960s. Parker was on a 50% cut of Presley’s earnings, a massive 80% of merchandising and probably also had a cut in the publishing with regard to many of the songs Presley recorded.
RCA were actually quite nervous about their investment, and there were many doubters within the company. Steve Sholes, the RCA company man who’d made the deal was even more nervous when Sun unleashed Carl Perkins ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ in December 1955. According to legendary Nashville guitarist and producer Chet Atkins, “Steve was afraid he’d bought the wrong one!” Atkins also performed at that historical January session together with Elvis’s regular group, Scotty Moore on guitar, Bill Black on bass, with the addition of drummer D.J.Fontana and country star and Nashville session player Floyd Cramer on piano. Sholes, who was to oversee the session, had no idea how it would turn out, and RCA’s engineers had admitted that they were mystified as to how Sam Phillips had created Elvis’s trademark sound at Sun’s studios, which was laden with echo. He needn’t have worried, the session was a classic, and even Chet Atkins, who’d seen it all before, called his wife up and suggested she get down to the studio right away. “I told her she’d never see anything like this again, it was just so damned exciting!” The three songs recorded that day were ‘I Got A Woman’, ‘Money Honey’ and ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, the song that would become Presley’s first RCA single.*
Elvis had been presented with the song by one of its writers, Mae Axton, at a deejay convention the previous November, and liking it so much had immediately promised to record it as his next single. Axton wrote the song after co-writer Tommy Durden showed her a newspaper article about a suicide. The victim had left a one-line suicide note, “I walk a lonely street.” Axton suggested they place a “Heartbreak Hotel” at the end of this lonely street, and the two completed the song in half an hour. In order to further persuade Presley to record the song, Axton had offered to give him a co-writing credit, and thus a cut of the royalties. This was a common practise in the business whereby major artists were offered writing credits in return for recording a song, and it may well often have been a demand by record companies or managers as a condition of recording. The fact is that Elvis Presley is credited as co-writer of several of his other hits including ‘Love Me Tender’ and ‘All Shook Up’. Elvis may well have made these songs famous, but he had nothing whatsoever to do with their writing. (This, by the way, was nothing new. In the early 20th century, Al Jolson, who was then billed as ‘America’s Greatest Entertainer’, often received composing credits on his famous recordings though Mr Jolson had nothing to do with their composition) While ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ appears on CD re-issues of Elvis’ debut RCA album, it did not in fact appear on the original album.
When Steve Sholes presented the results of his first sessions with Elvis to the powers that be at RCA in New York, they were not impressed, telling him he had nothing worth releasing and had better get back in the studio again as soon as possible! The next session included a version of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ which Sholes had previously promised Sam Phillips that Elvis would not record. However, in the absence of anything better, RCA reluctantly released ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ to mixed reviews. Sam Phillips described it as a “morbid mess”, while in England (where EMI promoted Elvis as ‘The King Of Western Bop’) Radio Luxembourg presenter Geoffrey Everitt wrote in the New Musical Express, “If you appreciate good singing, I don’t suppose you’ll manage to hear this disc all through.” The general public at large, however, had a considerably different opinion, and after just 6 weeks on release in America ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ hit Number 1 on the charts, where it remained for 8 weeks. The ‘King of Rock’n’Roll’ had arrived. In closing, an indication of how the records of Elvis and his contemporaries were affecting the youth of the day (and horrifying their parents) was given in February 1956 as ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was unleashed. In Cleveland, Ohio, police invoked a 1931 ordinance banning people under 18 from dancing in public unless accompanied by an adult!
*While ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was Presley’s first single recorded for RCA, before it was issued, the US company re-released his previous 5 Sun singles in December 1955.
Copyright © 2001/2014 SongStories/Tony Burton
Originally published by Tony Burton, Stavanger bibliotek og kulturhus.