Random Tracks: Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”

With the upcoming release of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, I’ll be marking the occasion by reviewing all of Elvis Presley’s 18 #1 hits on Billboard including 11 that topped pre-Hot 100 charts and 7 that topped the Hot 100 after its 1958 inception.


Elvis Presley- “Heartbreak Hotel”

HIT #1: April 21, 1956

STAYED AT #1: 8 weeks

In the history of popular music, there’s a world before Elvis Presley and a world after Elvis Presley. The arrival of Elvis on the music scene in the mid-‘50s represents a major dividing line in pop culture from which there would be no going back. When Elvis transformed from a local sensation to the biggest star in the world garnering him screams from teenage girls and disgust from moral conservatives, this poor boy from Mississippi immediately lit the fuse on a musical revolution that would shift the order of pop music for years to come and is arguably still being felt today. Indeed, it’s very hard to imagine where music would be now if Elvis Presley hadn’t come out when he did. And it all starts with “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first of 18 #1 hits.

The lyrical concept of “Heartbreak Hotel” is a pretty simple one: Elvis’ baby has left him and now he has a new place to dwell at the end of Lonely Street a little place called Heartbreak Hotel. With the way the lyrics are, “Heartbreak Hotel” comes off like an advertisement for the titular place with Elvis inviting everyone who’s been broken-hearted to come to the hotel regardless of how crowded it is where the bellhop’s tears are flowing and the desk clerks are dressed in black. It’s a place so lonely that you could die. 

“Heartbreak Hotel” is by in large a very depressing song yet it doesn’t come out like that with Elvis. He might be singing about his baby leaving him and how he could die but he doesn’t sound the least bit sad. Even here in his early days, the Elvis voice we all know is fully formed wherein one part he’s all full-power energy and in another, he’s in full-on baritone crooning. It’s not about the lyrics in “Heartbreak Hotel” but rather the force of nature in Elvis’ voice that makes the song what it is. In Elvis’ hands, he makes the Heartbreak Hotel sound like a cool even sexy place to go to which explains why many try to emulate him when covering “Heartbreak Hotel” rather than doing it straight as a sad song.

For his debut national hit, “Heartbreak Hotel” feels quieter and softer than what you’d expect for the man who would be forever crowned the King of Rock and Roll. Aside from the guitar stabs and a very ’50s-sounding solo, “Heartbreak Hotel” keeps things very minimal with a descending plucked double bass anchoring the song alongside a quiet drum shuffle and boogie-woogie like piano. When we think of breakout hits from artists, it’s usually with a more upbeat banger type of song instead of something this small sounding. But 1956 was a very different time and what may have sounded groundbreaking then sounds pretty normal now.

The writers of “Heartbreak Hotel,” Mae Axton and Tommy Durden, claimed to have been inspired for the song by a newspaper article in the Miami Herald about a man who had jumped to death in 1955 from a hotel after destroying his identity with the man’s suicide note including the line “I walk a lonely street.” There’s been some dispute to that story with a 2016 Rolling Stone article saying that the writers were probably inspired by a criminal called Alvin Krolik who was shot and killed in 1955 during an attempted robbery in El Paso, Texas with the paper there reporting on Krolik’s death using the headline “Story of Person Who Walked Lonely Street.” Considering how long ago this is and the fact that both writers are long dead, we’ll likely never know the true story but still for 1956 this is some bleak inspiration for a song, much less the debut hit for one of the biggest music stars of all time.

Axton recorded a demo that she intended to play for Elvis seeing all the buzz he was getting at his shows. One day in November 1955, Axton met Elvis in his hotel room to play him the demo which Elvis liked so much he listened to it nine more times and had it all memorized when he recorded shortly after just as he switched labels from Sun Records to RCA Victor. Elvis was so excited about “Heartbreak Hotel” that when he started premiering it at his shows, he would tell people it would be his first hit. His instincts would prove to be very good on this.

“Heartbreak Hotel” was released in January 1956 but it was awhile before it was #1. It took a couple of TV appearances first on Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey’s Stage Show in February but what really helped was a performance on The Milton Berle Show on April 3rd. A few weeks later, “Heartbreak Hotel” was at #1 on what Billboard called then its Top 100 chart, a precursor to the modern Hot 100. The song was an undeniable smash but there would be many more of those to come for Elvis. He had only just entered the building.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Willie Nelson and Leon Russell scored a country #1 in 1979 with their own country-rock flavored take on “Heartbreak Hotel.” Here’s their version:

(Willie Nelson’s two highest-charting singles, 1982’s “Always On My Mind” and 1984’s Julio Iglesias collab “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before,” both peaked at #5. “Always On My Mind” is a 9. “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” is a 4. Leon Russell’s highest-charting single, 1972’s “Tight Rope,” peaked at #11.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the famous moment when then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton shows off his saxophone skills by playing “Heartbreak Hotel” during the opening of a 1992 episode of The Arsenio Hall Show:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the Elvis-soundtrack heavy 2002 Disney film Lilo & Stitch where Lilo listens and lip-syncs along to “Heartbreak Hotel” in her room:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a clip of Justin Timberlake at a 2013 concert covering “Heartbreak Hotel:”

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jennifer Lopez performing a fiery version of “Heartbreak Hotel” on a 2019 Elvis tribute special:

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