Heartbreak Hotel: Elvis Presley; Hoyt Axton; Willie Nelson & Leon Russell

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Heartbreak Hotel. This was not only Elvis Presley’s first #1 record, but it is one of the most important rockabilly tunes. We will start with the original song by Elvis, and then we will review covers from Hoyt Axton, and also Leon Russell & Willie Nelson.

Elvis Presley and Heartbreak Hotel:

The song Heartbreak Hotel was written by Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton. As with so many co-written songs that turn out to be blockbuster hits, the two writers have very different recollections of their contributions to the song.

Tommy Durden’s story is that he wrote the song after reading about a man who committed suicide, leaving behind a note that said only “I walk a lonely street.” According to Durden, after writing the song he performed it a few times with his band before showing it to Mrs. Axton.

However, according to Mae Axton, Durden
had only written a few lines of the song and asked her to help him finish it.
According to Axton, she came up with the idea of situating a hotel – Heartbreak Hotel – at “the end of Lonely Street.” Eventually, the hotel became the centerpiece of the tune, and the two completed writing the lyrics to the song.

While Axton and Durden were working on the song, they were interrupted by performer Glen Reeves. Reeves agreed to make a demo of the song, but opined that it was “the silliest thing I ever heard,” and Reeves declined an offer of songwriting credit on the tune.

The lyrics of Heartbreak Hotel are simple and stark.  They describe a man who is totally despondent over losing his girl. He relocates to Heartbreak Hotel, an establishment that is “down at the end of Lonely Street.”

Well, since my baby left me
Well, I found a new place to dwell
Well, it’s down at the end of Lonely Street
At Heartbreak Hotel

[CHORUS] Where I’ll be–where I get so lonely, baby
Well, I’m so lonely
I get so lonely, I could die

Although it’s always crowded
You still can find some room
For broken-hearted lovers
To cry there in the gloom

[CHORUS]

Meanwhile, in Memphis the young singer Elvis Presley had begun his rise to stardom. Below is a photo of Elvis holding an acoustic guitar circa 1956.

In July, 1954 Elvis was recording in Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio. Phillips had brought in session musicians guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black to accompany Elvis.

The recording session was not producing much, until between takes Elvis began to sing an up-tempo version of Arthur Crudup’s blues song That’s All Right, and Moore and Black joined in.

The boys were simply horsing around in the studio. However, Phillips recognized this as the sound he had been looking for. According to legend, Phillips had told various colleagues,
‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.’

Phillips and Elvis worked on their version of That’s All Right and recorded it. Phillips subsequently gave it to local DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam), who began playing it. The public reaction was remarkable, and started Elvis on his meteoric rise.

By mid-1955, Elvis’ career had taken off. In November of that year, he was voted most promising young male artist at the Country Disc Jockey Convention. Elvis signed a deal with RCA Victor, and then signed ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker as his manager.

Mae Axton and Elvis looking at a single record of Heartbreak Hotel.

Mae Axton and Elvis looking at a single record of Heartbreak Hotel.

When Axton became aware of the young singer Elvis Presley, she arranged for Colonel Tom Parker to present her song to Elvis.
Upon hearing the demo, Presley exclaimed “Hot dog, Mae, play that again!”, and listened to it ten times, memorizing the song.

At left is a photo of Mae Axton together with Elvis. They are holding a 45 rpm single of Elvis’ recording of Heartbreak Hotel.

In his first recording session with RCA Victor in Nashville on Jan. 10, 1956, Heartbreak Hotel was one of the first songs that Elvis recorded.

Here is the audio of Elvis’ 1956 record, Heartbreak Hotel.

As you can see, Elvis’ version of Heartbreak Hotel represents an unusual fusion of styles.  It is a blues song, but is merged with elements from rockabilly, particularly through Elvis’ delivery of the lines (when Elvis sings “I get so lonely, baby”, he is practically swallowing his words).

Rockabilly itself was a mixture of country & western with rock and roll. Elvis was one of the first great proponents of that sound, along with contemporaries such as Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Initially, Heartbreak Hotel presented a significant problem for radio stations – it was considered too funky for a country song; while at the same time it seemed too ‘country’ to be played on R&B stations.

Note that the recording is really unique for its time. The reverb is overwhelming; it sounds like it was recorded inside a tunnel. Furthermore, the instrumental accompaniment is quite sparse. Initially, there are just a few guitar chords, with the bass chiming in after the first line.

Elvis was backed up by his instrumental group the Blue Moon Boys, consisting of Scotty Moore on electric guitar, Bill Black on upright bass and D.J. Fontana on drums. In addition, they were joined by Nashville regulars Chet Atkins on guitar and Floyd Cramer on piano.

Note that Elvis’ vocals here are highly stylized, producing a dark and moody atmosphere. Apparently the RCA Victor engineers did not know quite what to make of Mr. Presley’s eccentric delivery, and as a result Elvis essentially produced his own record.

Heartbreak Hotel turned out to be a genuine blockbuster. Released in January 1956, it reached #1 on both the Billboard pop and country & western charts. It also reached #5 on the R&B charts. It was the first of a long string of #1 hits for Elvis.

Despite its great success, the song did not receive universal critical acclaim, particularly in the U.K. The BBC used its monopoly power on radio programming to declare the song unfit for general entertainment; they placed it on their “restricted play” list.

Here is a live performance by Elvis of Heartbreak Hotel. This takes place in 1956, and apparently Elvis performed this tune while on the deck of a destroyer.

It’s great to see the young, lean Elvis performing here. He is backed by his usual band at the time, the Blue Moon Boys. Elvis throws in a bit of a bump & grind to liven things up for the sailors.

Elvis always looked a bit embarrassed when he swiveled his pelvis, and the effect this had on crowds was quite interesting. While older viewers were often taken aback, even repulsed, by moves that seemed more at home in a burlesque parlor, younger audiences were enthralled.

And teenage girls simply went bananas when Elvis broke into these moves. The sexual energy accompanying a live Elvis performance, at least during the early years, was quite  dramatic.

Next, we will show Elvis singing Heartbreak Hotel, but at a significantly later point in his career. This is the so-called ’68 Comeback Special live show broadcast on NBC TV from Las Vegas in Dec. 1968.

Many things had happened in Elvis’ career since 1956. First off, he was drafted into the Army in 1958. Although he had recorded a number of songs prior to his induction, which were released during his time in the Army, Elvis’ career certainly suffered from the fact that he was never on tour or on TV during this period.

After his release from the Army, he devoted more and more time to his movie career. Suffice it to say that after one great movie, Jailhouse Rock, the movies featuring Elvis went from bad to worse.

There was only the flimsiest ‘plot’ to the movies; worse still, the plot was nearly identical from one movie to the next. All of this would be tolerable if the movies featured some great rock and roll songs. Unfortunately, even this was lacking in the Elvis movies.

The songs in Elvis movies were apparently written by holdovers from Tin Pan Alley. The cheesy formulaic songs would have been right at home in a 3rd-rate off-Broadway production in the 1940s. You can tell from the song titles that they were stinkers – songs such as No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car, and Rock-a-Hula Baby.

So, Elvis had a lot to prove with a live TV program in 1968. The network, NBC, expected a Christmas special. However, Elvis was determined to show that he was still capable of rocking and rolling.

He assembled some of his old bandmates such as guitarist Scotty Moore, dressed up in a slinky leather jumpsuit, and wowed the television audience. Here he is singing Heartbreak Hotel.

Elvis is extremely appealing here. In an extremely relaxed performance, he reminisces about his long absence from the public eye, stops when he gets short of breath, forgets the lyrics, and declares it “the worst job I’ve ever done” on the song. But it is heartening to see him rocking once more, and he is clearly having a great time!

It would be hard to overestimate the effect that Heartbreak Hotel had on youths who listened to the song in 1956. For example, several of the musicians who would later become superstars in the British Invasion found the tune electrifying.

Both John Lennon and George Harrison of the Beatles described the song as a revelation to them; George said his first exposure to the song was a “rock and roll epiphany.” Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin heard the song at age 8 and described it as
so animal, so sexual, the first musical arousal I ever had.

And Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones stated
That was the first rock and roll I heard. It was a totally different way of delivering a song, a totally different sound, stripped down, no bullshit, no violins and ladies’ choruses and schmaltz … It was the first time I’d heard something so stark.

Hoyt Axton and Heartbreak Hotel:

A song as seminal as Heartbreak Hotel has been covered by scores of artists. Musicians covering it include
Cher … Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, … Tom Jones, … Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Diamond, … and Guns N’ Roses.

But here we want to highlight a cover of this song by country singer-songwriter and actor Hoyt Axton. Below is a publicity photo of Hoyt Axton.

We picked Hoyt Axton’s cover for two reasons. The first reason is that Hoyt Axton had a successful career as a country singer on the West Coast. Raised in Oklahoma, he made his way to northern California and was a regular in San Francisco clubs.

A few of Axton’s songs became hits for other groups. In particular, Axton wrote Joy To The World (“Jeremiah was a bullfrog”), and Never Been to Spain, both of which were top-10 hits for the pop trio Three Dog Night.

Axton also wrote the song The Pusher, which appeared on Steppenwolf’s 1968 debut album and became one of the signature tunes for that heavy-metal group, and which was also featured in the movie Easy Rider.

Hoyt Axton and his mother Mae on the TV show Hee-Haw.

Hoyt Axton and his mother Mae on the TV show Hee-Haw.

The other reason that we are featuring Hoyt Axton here is that his mother Mae Axton was the co-writer of Heartbreak Hotel. So in performing this song, Hoyt is giving a shout-out to his mom. At left is a photo of Hoyt Axton and his mother Mae appearing on the TV program Hee-Haw.

So here is Hoyt Axton in a live performance of Heartbreak Hotel. This was from Hoyt’s appearance at Farm Aid in 1985 in Champaign, IL.

In Axton’s cover, the song is much more a straight R&B tune. The song features a tasty slide guitar solo, some sassy backup singers, and Hoyt Axton himself. You may recognize Axton as he appeared in several movies, mostly in western films. He was mainly cast as a good-old boy but occasionally appeared as the villain. Axton’s most famous movie role was in the 1984 comedy-horror film Gremlins.

Hoyt Axton struggled for several years with addiction to cocaine. His songs The Pusher and The No-No Song (made famous in a version by Ringo Starr) refer to his personal suffering, and the difficulty he had in bringing his substance abuse under control.

In 1995 Axton suffered a stroke, which confined him to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. Axton died from a heart attack in Oct. 1999, at the age of 61.

Leon Russell & Willie Nelson and Heartbreak Hotel:

In 1979, Willie Nelson and Leon Russell released an album, One For the Road. A collaboration between Willie Nelson and Leon Russell is really a musical match made in Heaven. It paired two great musicians, each of whom came out of the great Southwest.

The store Panther's Pantry in Abbott, TX.

The store Panther’s Pantry in Abbott, TX.

Willie Nelson was born and raised in Abbott, TX, a town of less than 400 people a bit north of Waco. At left is a photo of an establishment, Panther’s Pantry, in Abbott.

Willie was raised by his grandparents and became interested in music at a young age. He was a fan of country legend Hank Williams, and also enjoyed the Western Swing music popularized by Bob Wills. But Willie was also influenced by jazz musicians such as Django Reinhardt and Louis Armstrong.

Below is a photo of Willie, sporting those big long braids.

As early as age 13, Willie began playing guitar and singing, largely as a way to escape picking cotton with the rest of his family during the summer.

He eventually made his way to Nashville, the epicenter of country music in those days. There, he had considerable success as a songwriter. In particular his song Crazy became biggest jukebox hit of all time for singer Patsy Cline, and Pretty Paper was a hit for Roy Orbison.

However, Willie’s singing career never really took off in Nashville; so in 1972 he ‘retired’ and moved to Austin, TX. Austin’s counterculture atmosphere and its eclectic music scene turned out to be a great fit for Willie.

In Austin, Willie re-booted his career, recording his unique brand of country music with both folk and jazz influences. Not only was his music successful, but along with artists such as Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, he became a leader in the ‘outlaw country’ movement.

Like Willie Nelson, Leon Russell was also somewhat of a musical child prodigy. Growing up in Tulsa, OK, Leon was fronting a band while still in high school. He then moved to L.A., where he became a highly successful studio musician.

Here is a photo of Leon Russell at the keyboards, in the early 70s.

Proficient at both keyboards and guitar, Russell played with a group called the Wrecking Crew. Those studio musicians backed up an incredible range of West Coast pop tunes. As a result, Russell has collaborated with musicians ranging from Barbra Streisand to the Rolling Stones, from Doris Day to B.B. King, and from the Beach Boys to Eric Clapton.

Whereas Willie Nelson has infused his country music with aspects of both folk and jazz, Leon Russell introduced interesting elements of both country and pop music into rock and roll.

Much like Willie, Leon’s initial commercial success in music came through his songwriting.  This started in 1969 with Joe Cocker’s cover of Leon’s tune Delta Lady.  However, eventually Leon had a number of hits of his own songs.

Cover of the Willie & Leon album One For the Road.

Cover of the Willie & Leon album One For the Road.

In 1970, Leon organized the backing musicians for Joe Cocker’s acclaimed Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. He also produced a number of albums from several different artists on his Shelter Records label.

So, when Willie and Leon get together, one can expect a great variety of songs delivered with a unique country flavor. And one would not be disappointed.

The double album One For the Road includes such pop standards as Cole Porter’s Don’t Fence Me In, as well as Summertime, George Gershwin’s great masterpiece from his opera Porgy and Bess.

In addition, the album contains Willie and Leon’s version of Heartbreak Hotel. And here are Willie and Leon in a live performance of this tune.

This is a really up-tempo country version of Elvis’ first #1 hit. Willie’s band Family keeps up the beat, while harp player Mickey Raphael is really cooking on this tune.

Their single of Heartbreak Hotel reached #1 in 1979 on the Billboard country charts. This song became Leon Russell’s only #1 hit.

It’s great to see these two terrific Southwestern musicians taking on this rockabilly classic. Willie, who hailed from Abbott, TX, and Leon who grew up in Tulsa, OK, would have definitely appreciated this song when it came out in 1956, particularly since it was co-written by Oklahoma’s own Mae Axton.

At the present time, Willie is 83 years old and decidedly frail, and Leon mainly gets around in a wheelchair. They are both living legends in their field, and it’s great to see them making music together.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Heartbreak Hotel
Wikipedia, Mae Boren Axton
Wikipedia, Elvis Presley
Wikipedia, Sam Phillips
Wikipedia, Hoyt Axton
Wikipedia, Willie Nelson
Wikipedia, Leon Russell

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Country music, Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll, Rockabilly and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Heartbreak Hotel: Elvis Presley; Hoyt Axton; Willie Nelson & Leon Russell

  1. Pingback: Young Blood: The Coasters; Leon Russell; Bad Company | Tim's Cover Story

  2. Pingback: Blue Moon of Kentucky: Bill Monroe; Elvis Presley; Patsy Cline | Tim's Cover Story

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