Lonely Street: The Sad Story Behind “Heartbreak Hotel”
Fifty-five years ago on Dec. 9, Elvis Presley performed “Heartbreak Hotel” for the first time, although he would not record the song until a month later in January 1956. According to Ernst Jorgensen’s Elvis Presley: A Life in Music, the performance on Dec. 9 was at a club near Swifton, Arkansas before a full house of 250 people. The 20-year-old Elvis was already a regional star but he had yet to appear on national television. Having just moved from Sun Records to RCA, he sensed he was on the brink of something big. That night in the Arkansas club, after playing the songs he’d recorded for Sun and a few covers, he introduced the new song, “I”ve got this brand new song and it’s gonna be my first hit.”
He was right. “Heartbreak Hotel” became Elvis Presley’s first Gold Record, selling more than a million copies. Rolling Stone Magazine has it listed as one of the greatest fifty songs of all-time, and when then presidential candidate Bill Clinton made his famous appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992, he chose “Heartbreak Hotel” to play on his sax. There’s something joyous about the way the song sounds, despite its sad lyrics, but there’s an even darker story underneath the inspiration for the song.
The lyrics were written by Mae Boren Axton, a schoolteacher and songwriter who would later be the mother of country singer and actor Hoyt Axton. The son would grow up to star in Gremlins and write “Joy the the World” (“Jeremiah was a bullfrog…”) as well as another song that Elvis would later sing, “Never Been to Spain.”
One day in 1955, Mae Axton and friend Tommy Durden read a story in the Miami Herald about a man who had committed suicide. The man had no identification, and he only left a note with a few words on it: “I walk a lonely street.” Axton, inspired by the note, sat down and wrote the lyrics to “Heartbreak Hotel,” locating the hotel of heartbreak on the street where the man walked. Tommy Durden wrote the music, and the song was complete in only one hour.
Nobody remembers the name or the life of the unfortunate man who wrote the suicide note. And of course, he never got to see that his final act of great agony led to poetry — and to millions of people screaming joyously and dancing to his final words of despair.
I bet he would have liked to have seen it.
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