CHECKING IN AT HEARTBREAK HOTEL
How Heartbreak Hotel transformed popular music by Spencer Leigh
This is an expanded version of a 50th anniversary tribute to Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, which appeared in the Independent on 14 March 2006.
Fifty years ago, on 12 May 1956, Elvis Presley made his debut on the UK chart with “Heartbreak Hotel”. Up until that point, the rock’n’roll records in the so-called ‘hit parade’ had been good-time novelties such as “Rock Around The Clock” and “See You Later Alligator”, but “Heartbreak Hotel”, entering at Number 15, was the real thing. The top three records featured a Yorkshire balladeer, a sprightly pianist and a close harmony group, and the combination of Elvis Presley’s brooding presence with a menacing arrangement was as improbable as a visit from an extraterrestrial. Popular music would never be the same again, but how did Elvis Presley come to make such a groundbreaking record?
Elvis Presley started recording for Sam Phillips’ Sun label in Memphis in July 1954. Working with two country musicians, Scotty Moore on lead guitar and Bill Black on stand-up bass, he recorded “That’s All Right (Mama)” and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” and, over the next year, Sun released five singles. Johnny Bernero played drums on “Mystery Train” and Jimmie Lott on “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone”, but mostly it was just Elvis, Scotty and Bill. Occasionally, Elvis worked live with D.J.Fontana, who played drums in the studio band for the radio show, Louisiana Hayride.
Presley had been too outlandish for the Grand Ole Opry, but he found a regular home at the Hayride. Fontana recalls, ““When Elvis came on the Louisiana Hayride, he looked stranger than most with his purple shirt and sideburns, ducktail and that greasy stuff. He was a good-looking kid and he had a charisma about him, but he didn’t do well the first time because it was a country-orientated, older crowd. They saw him running across the stage and decided he was a nut, but after a couple of weeks, they were telling their kids, ‘You gotta see this boy’. The crowd changed completely – we got the young kids coming in and that helped him a lot.”
With his idiosyncratic name, Elvis Presley was in a world of Hanks, recording for the country market and playing on country shows. Another performer, Mitchell Torok, remembers: “Elvis had such appeal and such charisma. His hair was falling over his face and he wore pink shirts with black ties, and black and white shoes. The country guys were wearing string ties, rhinestones and cowboy boots. You put a picture of Ray Price next to Elvis Presley and you’ll see the difference. Elvis was closing the first half on a lot of the touring shows, but the fans would still be screaming for him when the main act came out.”
This was the first time that there had been young audiences at country shows. Tom Paxton puts it succinctly: “Elvis was so new that the promoters didn’t know what he was and so the entire supporting bill was of country and western acts, and I mean hard-core country and western. Well, nobody suffered the fate that these poor people suffered. They were playing to kids who wanted Elvis and nothing but Elvis, and it was simply awful for them.”
In a way, it was awful for Elvis too. “The hard part for Elvis was that he was a fan of all these guys,” says Scotty Moore, “He loved country music and he had a respect for his elders. He didn’t like them having a bad time because of him.”
Despite regional success, Sam Phillips lacked the financial support (and possibly the nerve) to give his singles national distribution. Selling heavily in the South, Elvis Presley made the US country Top 10 with the hiccuping “Baby Let’s Play House” and followed it with an echo-drenched ballad, “I Forgot To Remember To Forget”, one of only two original songs that he recorded for Sun.
Encouraged by his partner, Colonel Tom Parker, the country star Hank Snow had taken Presley under his tutelage in Hank Snow Jamboree Attractions. He performed on Snow’s stage shows and he impressed a 40-year-old schoolteacher and publicist, Mae Boren Axton, when the show came to Florida in May 1955. She discussed him with a local musican, Tommy Durden, and suggested that they should write songs for him.
Durden showed her a story from the Miami Herald about a hotel guest who committed suicide and left the note, “I walk a lonely street.” The newspaper wondered if anyone recognised him. He told Axton that it could make a good blues song: a lonely man, a lonely street and a man’s life is over. She added that it must be a “heartbreak hotel” and continuing the imagery with crying bellhops and desk clerk in funeral attire, they completed the song within an hour.
Axton asked Glen Reeves to cut a demonstration record for Elvis. In return, she offered him a songwriting credit, but he did it for free. Because they happened to be around, Axton offered the song to the more conventional duo, the Wilburn Brothers. They turned it down, which stiffened her resolve that the song was right for Presley.
In November 1955, Axton attended a radio convention at the Andrew Jackson Hotel in Nashville for disc-jockeys. She played the demo for Elvis Presley and he reacted instantly: “Hot dog, Mrs. Axton, play that again!” He heard the demo a dozen times, by which time he had memorised the song.
The major labels were keen to poach Presley from Sam Phillips, and no one was keener than Steve Sholes, the A&R manager at RCA. 45-year-old Sholes had worked his way up the company, producing both Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton and his bulk testifying to years of good living. Phillips had five years to run on Presley’s contract and Sholes offered him $35,000 with an additional $5,000 for Elvis himself. The price included RCA’s rights to the Sun masters. It appears ridiculously low, but the deal was unprecedented. Phillips leapt at it because he had cash flow problems and besides, he had faith in his new signings – Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
The press photographs from the deal with RCA on 22 November 1955 are all smiles. Presley is giving his sensual, trademark smirk: Phillips and Sholes are blissfully happy: Presley’s parents are happy but bemused, and, most of all, Presley’s new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, is the cat with the cream. Hank Snow thought he was getting a slice of the action but Parker had skilfully ensured that he saw none of it. Snow, an immensely proud man, never spoke of the deception because he did not like to admit that he had been duped.
Charlie Louvin of the Louvin Brothers knew Parker well: “If you put a great performer with an extremely smart manager, you’ve got a winning combination. Parker would sell his mother if it would advance his artist: there was nothing he wouldn’t do. If you didn’t have the potential to make big bucks, then he didn’t want to mess with you.”
Although not revealed at the time, RCA only came up with $20,000. The rest came from the music publishers, Hill and Range, who set up a music publishing company for Presley and obtained an agreement that at least one side of every Presley single would be a Hill and Range song. Nice work if you can get it.
Like Parker, Sholes had realised that Elvis Presley was much more than a country act and had mass appeal. He could spearhead the new rock’n’roll music, offering an alternative to the square dance calling of Bill Haley and his Comets. The RCA executives were unsure: Sholes’s job was on the line if their investment was not recouped within a year. It’s surprising that Sholes was worried about this. Even if Presley did not have crossover appeal, he would still sell to the country market. Sholes’ first move was to reissue his Sun singles on RCA including “I Forgot To Remember To Forget”. RCA took out a full page in the trade paper, Billboard, calling him, “The most talked-about new personality in the last 10 years of recorded music.”
Whilst retaining the feel of the Sun records, Sholes wanted a fuller sound. RCA’s Nashville studio was run by the distinguished country music guitarist, Chet Atkins, and he asked Atkins to arrange the musicians for Presley’s first session in Nashville in January 1956. “Steve Sholes conducted the buyout from Sun, and he was very smart as he bought all the masters, “said Atkins, “He called me after he had got the contract and said that he was going to record Elvis and he wanted me to get a band together, which I did. We kept Scotty and Bill, as they gave him his sound, and we added Floyd Cramer, D. J. Fontana and myself, along with a vocal group.”
Ah, the vocal group. Elvis Presley was keen to supplement the sparse sound that he had on Sun and he wanted to use the vocal group, the Jordanaires. Atkins demurred: RCA had signed the white gospel quartet, the Speer Family, and Atkins preferred to use them. Not all of them wanted to sing on secular records, and so Atkins had the makeshift trio of Gordon Stoker from the Jordanaires with the brothers, Brock and Ben Speer. Gordon Stoker recalls, “I knew Brock and Ben and liked them, but I said to Chet, ‘Brock is a bass, Ben is a lead and I’m a first tenor, so who’s gonna sing baritone?’ Chet said ‘Don’t worry it won’t make any difference.’”
On January 6 Elvis Presley played in the gymnasium of Randolph High School in Mississippi: it marked the last time he would play in a small town setting. He turned 21 on January 8, but try as I may, I can’t find any record of Elvis celebrating his birthday. Maybe he was too psyched up to celebrate.
RCA had one of the most successful country labels and its Nashville studio was in constant use. In 1955 they had taken a lease on a second studio, a decommissioned church at 1525 McGavock Street, which was still owned by the Methodists. Atkins felt that this would be a safer bet than the main studio for recreating the echo, and hence the excitement, on the Sun recordings. The Sun artist, Charlie Feathers, saw how it enhanced his own recordings: “Knowing how to use and record that slapback is an important part of it. You had dead mikes when Bing Crosby used to sing and everything was smooth and level. You have much more of an edge with a slapback.”
Phillips had used two tape recorders with a delay mechanism but Atkins with his engineer, Bob Ferris were moving into Heath Robinson territory. Scotty Moore: “The studio had a real long, big, huge hallway right down the front of the building with a tile floor and some glass. They had this great big speaker at one end and a microphone at the other and a sign up telling people to be quiet when they came through the door.” The Coca-Cola dispenser was off limits as the rattle could ruin a take.