Friday, April 21, 2006

50 years ago: Elvis Presley hit #1 with “Heartbreak Hotel”

Heartbreak Hotel

Elvis Presley

Writer(s): Mae Axton/Tommy Durden (see lyrics here)

Released: January 27, 1956

First Charted: March 3, 1956

Peak: 18 US, 16 CB, 17 HR, 117 CW, 3 RB, 2 UK, 1 CN, 3 AU, 1 DF (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): 2.0 US, -- UK, 5.0 world (includes US + UK)

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): 2.0 radio, 15.76 video, 23.71 streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

RCA Records made a deal on November 22, 1955 that may be the best ever made in music history; for $40,000, an unprecedented amount at the time, they bought Elvis’ contract from Sun Records. FB At times, Presley accounted for 25% or more of RCA’s record sales. SA His blend of R&B with country made him rock music’s first and greatest superstar. It should also be noted how that contract didn’t just launch Elvis’ career, but gave Sun Records the cash to promote future stars such as Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. AH

“Heartbreak Hotel” was among the songs recorded at Elvis’ first RCA recording session in January 1956. FB RCA was looking for more rockabilly tunes in the vein of what he had recorded for Sun, but for his first RCA single, Presley delivered “this gloomy, downtempo number.” RS500 “Could there have possibly been a less likely song to introduce a new teen-idol star for the fledging genre of rock and roll to a national audience?” SS Sun Records founder Sam Phillips called “a morbid mess.” RS500

It became Presley’s “breakthrough record, a performance that still resonates today with all the spine-tingling power and dignity and mystery of a classic rock and roll single.” PW “The power of the song is its ferocious intimacy.” PW Elvis serves up “a smoldering, echo-drenched vocal.” TB He “sings the chorus backed only by the beautiful, lonesome sound of a walking electric bass…Only a great voice can hang out there that naked.” PW “The king of rock and roll had just ascended to his throne.” FB

The song developed out of a Miami Herald newspaper story SS which Tommy Durden brought to Mae Axton, an English teacher and freelance journalist. AH The front page article was about a middle-aged man who committed suicide, leaving a note that simply said “I walk a lonely street.” Axton was inspired, suggesting to Tommy that they put a Heartbreak Hotel at the end of the lonely street. TC She played a demo featuring rockabilly singer Glenn Reeves for Elvis, AH confidently insisting it would be his first million-selling single. FB She was right.

On January 10 – just two days after his 21st birthday – Elvis recorded the song at RCA Studios in Nashville. Guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, who’d worked with Elvis at Sun Records, were there along with guitarist Chet Atkins, drummer D.J. Fontana, and pianist Floyd Cramer. SS The latter two came to be considered “principal architects of what became known as ‘the Nashville Sound’ or ‘Countrpolitan,’” AH “styles of country music that pulled the music away from its roots and twards…the pre-rock pop sound.” AH

The song was released in late January, but didn’t take off TB until April. On the 3rd, Elvis sang the song before an estimated fourth of the U.S. population on NBC’s Milton Berle Show. FB By the end of the month, it had landed atop the Billboard charts. By year’s end, the magazine crowned it the number single of 1956. FB


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First posted 7/13/2014; last updated 3/30/2023.

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