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Elvis Presley's 'Heartbreak Hotel:' History, Meaning, And Lyrics Of The Hit That Almost Wasn't

Music | January 27, 2020

Elvis Presley holding framed gold record of Heartbreak Hotel while in a recording studio to record a new song. (Photo by Don Cravens/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

"Heartbreak Hotel" was Elvis Presley's first hit -- and it was a strange one. Neither an upbeat rocker nor a sensitive ballad, "Heartbreak Hotel" is aggressively sorrowful, certainly informed by the blues Elvis loved. But in its lyrics, it's bleak -- almost suicidal or apocalyptic. Though today it's a pillar of early rock music and Elvis' career, many people around the future King expressed doubt when it was recorded. 

'Heartbreak Hotel' Was A Genre-Spanning Blockbuster

There's an actual Heartbreak Hotel in Tennessee (invisible-exports)

The 1956 sensation sold so well that Billboard presented the King with a “Double Triple Crown” award that saluted “Heartbreak Hotel” for simultaneously hitting #1 on all six of their pop and country charts. “Heartbreak Hotel” even made the top five on Billboard's R&B chart, cementing its legacy as an all-time tune. The smash-hit was Elvis’ first and paved the way for the Presely to become the King we all remember today. On top of the roaring success, the backstory to “Heartbreak Hotel” warrants a motion picture. Here’s the story of “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Elvis Before He Became King

Elvis wasn't quite the King until Heartbreak Hotel (longislandweekly)

Before we discuss the genesis of “Heartbreak Hotel”, it’s relevant to detail the state of Elvis’ career at the time. In 1955, Elvis was under contract with Sam Phillips’ Sun label for five years when RCA music executive, Steve Sholes came around with his sights set on Elvis. At the time Elvis had done well, especially in the south, but hadn’t broken out nationally.

Sholes offered Phillips $35,000 for Elvis, roughly $340,000 in today’s money. Phillips accepted because he was low on cash and higher on his two other acts: Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Other executives at RCA weren’t sold on Elvis. They threatened that if Sholes couldn’t recoup the investment within a year, he’d be out of a job. In the end, it turned out to be one of the all-time investments in music history!

The Making Of 'Heartbreak Hotel'

A major impetuous behind Heartbreak Hote:l Mae Boren Axton (pinterest.co.uk)

Naturally, the germination of “Heartbreak Hotel” was a sad one. A steel guitar player, Tommy Durden, read an article about a man who killed himself, leaving a single line in his suicide note, “I walk a lonely street.”

That hair raising line sparked an idea in Durden who showed the article to his friend and part-time songwriter, Mae Boren Axton. At the time, Axton worked as a public relations secretary for Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker. She boldly told Elvis “You need a million-seller and I’m going to write it for you.”

Elvis Knew A Hit When He Heard It

The record sprung Elvis into superstardom (gottahaverockandroll)

As Axton and Durden worked on turning a mournful article into a song, Axton suggested that there be a “Heartbreak Hotel” at the end of this man’s lonely street. With their setting in mind, they worked on painting a picture of this languishing lodging. Their aim was to create a romantically charged funeral. That’s where the famous lines, “broken-hearted lovers cry away their gloom” and “the desk clerk’s dressed in black” comes from.

Axton made a demo with a musician named Glenn Reeves, who played it the way he thought Elvis would. Ironically, Reeves’s opinion of Elvis was "the boy wouldn't go far." Nevertheless, when Axton played it for Elvis, he was sold instantly, saying, “Hot dog, Mae, play it again.” He immediately added it to his live playlist, only changing the lyrics from “they pray to die” to “they could die.” 

The Lyrics To 'Heartbreak Hotel'

Source: Amazon.com

The lyrics to "Heartbreak Hotel:"

[Verse 1]

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]

You make me so lonely baby
Well, I'm so lonely
I get so lonely I could die

[Verse 2]

Although it's always crowded
You still can find some room
For broken hearted lovers
To cry away their gloom
And be so

[Chorus]

You make me so lonely baby
Well, I'm so lonely
I get so lonely I could die

[Verse 3]

Now the bellhop's tears keep flowing
The desk clerk's dressed in black
Well they've been so long on lonely street
They'll never look back

[Chorus]

You make me so lonely baby
Well, I'm so lonely
I get so lonely I could die

[Verse 4]

Well now, if your baby leaves you
And you got a tale to tell
Just take a walk down lonely street
To Heartbreak Hotel

A Superstar Is Born Despite Executive Handwringing

Heartbreak Hotel may not have ever happened with Steve Sholes (elvis-atouchofgold)

While Elvis was sure he had a hit on his hands, pretty much everyone else was skeptical. Sam Philips thought “Heartbreak Hotel” was a “morbid mess. Many of the higher-ups at RCA told Sholes that it didn’t sound like anything, it didn’t sound like his other records, and I’d better not release it. I better go back and record it again.”

Of course, the rest is history. “Heartbreak Hotel” sold over a million albums and made Elvis the King, a national sensation. Amazingly, a few out of touch places gave “Heartbreak Hotel” poor reviews, especially in the UK. The New Musical Express said, "If you appreciate good singing, I don't suppose you'll manage to hear this disc all through." Naturally, they didn’t know anything, as the single hit #2 on the UK charts. If you come at the King, you best not miss. 

Tags: Elvis Presley | Heartbreak Hotel | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!