Elvis Presley’s debut chart-topper, “Heartbreak Hotel” was a game-changer. Up until then, rock-n-roll was all about having a good time. Yet Presley changed that image forever with “Heartbreak Hotel”. Redefining the taste of the audience and bringing in a mixture of blues and rockabilly, Presley’s moody and mournful tune was a ground-breaking record. This post takes a brief look at the origins and meaning of this classic song.
“Heartbreak Hotel” was co-written by schoolteacher Mae Axton and her friend Tommy Durden. The backstory of the song is truly tragic. Axton recalls the songwriting experience;
“Tommy came over and showed me a story in the paper about a man who had rid himself of his identity, written a one-line sentence, ‘I walk a lonely street’, and then killed himself.”
The incident left an impact on Durden who wanted to make it into a song. And so “Heartbreak Hotel” at the end of the ‘lonely street’ was born! The pair wanted the song to be recorded by the Wilburn Brothers at first. However, they had refused the song, claiming that it had no commercial value. Then “Heartbreak Hotel” found its way to a young Presley who was just starting out his career. Presley heard the demo being played once and had taken an immediate liking to it, saying; “Hot dog, Mrs. Axton, play that again!”
The song was recorded during the time when Presley was making the transition from Sun Records to the more popular RCA Victor. Producer Steve Sholes was uncertain whether “Heartbreak Hotel” would be a success, especially as it deviated from Presley’s previous records at Sun. However, Sholes decided to place faith in Presley’s acumen and pushed for “Heartbreak Hotel” to be released as a single on January 27, 1956. The song had a slow start at the beginning but gained in popularity as Presley made his television debut on the Stage Show. “Heartbreak Hotel” slowly gained momentum, eventually becoming the song that is synonymous with the name Elvis Presley.
Despite its slow start, “Heartbreak Hotel” was a commercial success. In 1956, it spent seven weeks at the top of the Billboard Top 100 and ranked #1 on the Country and Western chart as well. In addition, the song marked Presley’s UK debut and secured the #2 spot on the UK Singles Chart. “Heartbreak Hotel” also found its way to #5 on the Rhythm & Blues Records chart, which is an achievement in itself, as the chart was usually dominated by African-Americans. In addition to its success in various charts, “Heartbreak Hotel” also left its mark on the music industry. It was inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1995. The song is also listed at #347 on the Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
Listen to “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley
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Elvis Presley “Heartbreak Hotel” Lyrics Review and Song Meaning
The lyrics and meaning of “Heartbreak Hotel” are pretty straightforward. And the lyrics are accompanied by a simple yet somber melody that is stripped to the bare bones. Much like the lyrics, it was perhaps this uncomplicated tune that captured the attention of the fans at the time. Presley’s performance of the song, with the words sounding mashed together in true rockabilly fashion, only added to its unsophisticated appeal.
“Well, since my baby left me
Well, I found a new place to dwell”
Axton and Durden certainly gave “Heartbreak Hotel” a very distinctive premise. The casual image of a hotel at the end of a street is transformed completely by adding the words ‘heartbreak’ and ‘lonely’ to the mix. Presley’s voice transports the listener to a dark and gloomy hotel, where you find heartbroken men nursing their heartache, perhaps over a drink.
“Well, I’m so lonely
I’ll be so lonely, I could die”
And then comes in the hook adding more heartache to the song. The repetition of ‘lonely’ in Presley’s brooding tone creates an air of melancholy that is hard to shake off. And then the backstory of the song is acknowledged. Sometimes heartbreak and loneliness can even lead to death – like that unknown man who committed suicide, meeting his end on a ‘lonely street’.
“Although it’s always crowded
You still can find some room”
For all its simplicity, each verse adds more depth to the song. Seemingly an innocent observation, that the hotel is always crowded but there is always more room, is a nod to the human condition. That heartbreak and the loneliness that follows is a norm and is to be expected. There are many men who have suffered heartbreak and there will be many more. The song offers no hope or consolation; it is merely a statement of fact – that love will sometimes end in tears, or even death.
Watch Elvis Presley Perform “Heartbreak Hotel” Live in 1968
Dubbed Elvis’ comeback special, in this live performance, Elvis playfully forgets lyrics, runs out of breath, and adds his own twists and turns for this ‘imperfect-perfect’ performance of “Heartbreak Hotel.” Watch below.
“Now, the bellhop’s tears keep flowin’
And the desk clerk’s dressed in black”
Adding to the metaphor of the “Heartbreak Hotel” is the imagery and the mood created by sheer lyricism. The listener in the dark and gloomy hotel can almost imagine the crying bellhop and the desk clerk in black. What an ominous image it is! We immediately think of a funeral, of the black-clad mourners and the crying. Yet some had been in the hotel for so long that they hardly noticed this dark atmosphere. Instead, they seem to find a certain sense of comfort among others who are similarly immersed in their sorrows, ‘never looking back.’
“Well, just take a walk down Lonely Street
To Heartbreak Hotel”
And so “Heartbreak Hotel” draws to a close with an invitation. If you’re heartbroken, this would be the place to drown your sorrows. This final verse offers not hope but a promise; perhaps you will cry, perhaps you may even decide to die, but your tale will be heard and remembered in this place. Considering the backstory of the song, this is not a great surprise. Maybe what Axton and Durden intended was to tell that unknown man that he was not alone as he thought – there are many men like him who experienced heartbreak and loneliness.
What is truly fascinating about “Heartbreak Hotel” is how such a gloomy song became popular. And this too was at a time when the music industry was about showmanship as much as it was about musical skill. Perhaps it was Presley’s moody presence and mournful vocals that made the difference, or it could have been the depth of the lyrics. But what is clear is that “Heartbreak Hotel”, a song inspired by a one-sentence suicide note, definitely made a lasting impression in the entertainment world.
Let us hear what you think about this song in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.