Presley was heading for the top of the country charts with “I Forgot To Remember To Forget” and everyone should have been full of confidence. It wasn’t so: nearly everybody was paranoid or apprehensive. Sholes knew that some executives were out to get him. Sun Records had just released Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Sholes wondered if he had bought the right act. Chet Atkins wasn’t sure whether he could replicate and improve on the Sun sound.
Elvis, Scotty and Bill were cutting a record outside of Memphis and Sun Studios for the first time: Moore learnt to play by copying Atkins’ style and didn’t relish playing in front of him. When he asked Atkins for guidance, Atkins said, “I’m just playing rhythm. You go on doing what you been doing”. D.J.Fontana felt adrift, knowing he was playing in a city of drummers. If he wasn’t up to scratch, Atkins only had to whistle for a replacement. Cramer, who had come from the Louisiana Hayride and knew Presley slightly, had settled in Nashville with his young wife and was wondering if he had made the right move. Only Bill Black seemed confident, chewing gum and cracking jokes.
Scotty Moore remembers, “It was a larger studio than Sun’s and more regimented – they called everything by a tape number and we weren’t used to that at all. We would sit around at Sun, eat hamburgers and then somebody would say, ‘Let’s try something.’ Sam used tape echo to make it sound like there was more of us than there was. He also kept Elvis’s voice close to the music, treating it like another instrument, and the vocal on country and pop records was normally far out in front. Elvis liked it Sam’s way: he kept saying, ‘Don’t make me too loud, keep me back.’”
RCA was so unsure of the session that no photographer had been invited. We know that Presley was wearing pink trousers with a blue stripe, and he was deferential, addressing authority figures as “Mister” or “Sir”. He had confidence in his vocal ability but he has uncertain about his guitarplaying, especially in front of Chet Atkins. Here was someone who had played with Hank Williams.
The first song was Ray Charles’ rhythm and blues hit, “I Got A Woman” It was a shrewd, easy choice as Presley had been doing it in performance and had devised a slow and bluesy ending. It was sung infectiously but Presley was moving around so the levels on his voice varied, especially when he dropped to his knees. Sholes said, “Hold it son, you’re gonna have to stand still while you sing.” Presley retaliated with “I’m sorry, Mr. Sholes, I don’t feel right standing still.” Ferris added two microphones so Presley could move. After eight takes, they had the master. Even Cool Hand Atkins was impressed. He called his wife and told her to come down, “You’ll never see anything like this again. It is just so damn exciting.”
Another problem was Elvis’s guitar. He was playing his new Martin D-28 percussively, and it was bleeding into his vocal microphone. Atkins gave him a felt pick which had a much softer sound.
“Heartbreak Hotel” started with Elvis, accompanied by a walking bass from Bill Black, going “Waalll, since ma baby left me”, which was reminiscent of Willie Dixon’s work with Muddy Waters. Scotty Moore played some assertive chords and Cramer’s piano was pattering like rain. Elvis breaks down at the end of each verse, effectively method acting like his hero James Dean. The song was nailed on Take Seven, but sadly, most of the original tapes were wiped so we haven’t a definitive record as to how “Heartbreak Hotel” came into being. The influence of Johnnie Ray’s “Cry” is self-evident and indeed, the song could be regarded as a parody of “Cry”.
Donald Clark, Frank Sinatra’s biographer, has called “Heartbreak Hotel” as “a disgraceful recording for 1956. It sounds like it was made underwater in a breadbox.” On the other hand, Paul McCartney has called it “perfect”: “It’s as if he is singing from the depths of hell. His phrasing, use of echo, it’s all so beautiful.”
Presley’s dirt-seeking biographer, Albert Goldman, told me: “‘Heartbreak Hotel’, which is an extravagant and highly exaggerated account of the blues, was more a psychodrama than a musical performance. As such, however, it was an extraordinary novelty and it moved rock music into another imaginative space. Had Elvis been able to continue in that genre, he could have been counted as one of the great creative forces of rock’n’roll, rather than just its master image.”
The final song was “Money Honey”, a cover of a rhythm and blues hit by the Drifters. It is a humorous, hard luck story, and Presley carries it well, helped by Cramer’s hammering notes. After three hours, they had three recordings and broke up, contentedly, for the day. Stoker and the Speers had been paid for doing nothing, but they came into their own the next day.
The agenda for the following day was two new emotional ballads, “I’m Counting On You” and “I Was The One”. Cramer added some distinctive variations on “I’m Counting On You” (at 17 takes, the most troublesome song) and there is a big sound on the throbbing “I Was The One” (nailed in seven) with Presley going into falsetto. Again there are parallels with Johnnie Ray, and Presley was so pleased with “I Was The One” that he preferred it to “Heartbreak Hotel”. Presley left Memphis for a week’s touring with Hank Snow: it would be the last time that he would support anyone and the last time he would work with Snow.
Sholes took the five songs to New York – two R&B covers, two ballads and a weird original – and played them for his bosses. They did not care for them and suggested that he should repeat the sessions. He convinced them into releasing a single of “Heartbreak Hotel”, and if it did not sell, then he would push the more regular “I Was The One”, the Hill and Range song on the B-side. Colonel Parker had agreed with Axton that Presley would appear as a writer on “Heartbreak Hotel”, which gave him and Parker a third share of the writing credit.
The single was released in the States on 27 January 1956, and Sam Phillips was unimpressed, calling it “a morbid mess”. One Sun artist, Charlie Feathers, still dismissed the record 30 years later: “The Elvis that I knew died in ’55. RCA didn’t know how to record Elvis. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ sounds bad when compared to anything he did at Sun. You listen to ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ next to ‘Mystery Train’, oh lordy, no.”
In April 1956 “Heartbreak Hotel” became Elvis Presley’s first American chart-topper, and made both the country and the normally black R&B charts. The single was released in the UK to poor reviews. The New Musical Express said, “If you appreciate good singing, I don’t suppose you’ll manage to hear this disc all through.” The Daily Mirror wrote a piece about the Elvis phenomenon and then, in May, Elvis Presley made the UK chart and the single climbed to Number 2.
Soon, “Heartbreak Hotel” had been satirised by Stan Freberg, his version including the credit, “Echo by Mammoth Cave”, but Tommy Steele now thinks that the original has comic qualities: “The excess use of echo on ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ gives you an idea of how primitive the music was then. We had to rely on atmosphere and this is a typical example. Some engineer decided to give it quality and atmosphere with this new-fangled thing called echo. It sounds very amusing now.”
In January 2006, a fiftieth anniversary reissue of “Heartbreak Hotel” topped the US singles chart. The anniversary was marred by the demolition of the Nashville studio to make a parking lot, but its reverberations will last as long as there is music. Carl Perkins once commented, “People ask me from time to time, ‘Carl, when is this Elvis thing going to die?’, and I say, ‘Why do you think it ever will? It will not.’ Elvis gave the world what it needed at the time, he was handsome, swift-moving, and he wasn’t vulgar on stage. You look back at him now and it is all motion and art. He was releasing that feeling right down through his body. He moved his legs like nobody ever did – he didn’t realise exactly what he was doing and he couldn’t help doing it. Moving is part of the music and if you don’t move, something is wrong.”
The New York songwriter, Paul Evans, who was to write for Elvis, nurses fond memories of “Heartbreak Hotel”: “I used to listen to the older singers like Perry Como, Doris Day and Nat ‘King’ Cole with my family, but once I had discovered Elvis Presley, I was banished to the basement with my own radio. I can still hear my father shouting, ‘Turn that damn radio down’. This was the first music to belong to just one generation. Rock’n’roll was a parting of the ways and a weapon in our hands. My generation celebrated our music and nobody else’s.”
When I met the maverick record producer Kim Fowley for Goldmine 618 (April 2, 2004), I thought that one of his passing remarks about meeting John Lennon at the Toronto Rock’n’Roll Festival in 1969 was highly significant. Fowley told me, “I asked John Lennon what his secret was. He said, ‘The Beatles were based on one idea – to improve our record collection. We would take our favourite records and then we would make better versions of them. We stopped being a group when we stopped trying to improve on the records that we liked.’” That quote did not appear in the feature because I was writing about Fowley himself and also because it merited further investigation. It appeared to me that John Lennon had made an insightful, very revealing comment about his songwriting.
Around the same time as my interview, a 2CD set, John Lennon’s Jukebox was scheduled for release with an edition of the TV arts programme, The South Bank Show, devoted to it. The portable jukebox weighed 10 pounds and was apparently used on tour by Lennon around 1965. My immediate reaction was to call Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ press officer, and ask him if he was the muggins who carried it around. “I don’t remember it at all,” he said, “so I certainly didn’t transport it. Surely he had some singles in his bag and a record player in his hotel rooms. It doesn’t really make sense.” Making sense or not, there is a list of contents in John Lennon’s handwriting on the jukebox and they throw some light on his tastes: vintage rock’n’roll, soul music and early folk-rock.
Here are some Beatle songs that were directly influenced by earlier records.
When the Beatles were in Hamburg in 1961, John and George Harrison wrote an instrumental, “Cry For A Shadow”, and as the title implies, it was a homage to the Shadows – or was it? See if you can get your hands on John Barry Seven’s 1958 single, “Rodeo” and speed it up.
It was start as you mean to go on. Paul McCartney based “Like Dreamers Do” on one of his stage favourites, “Besame Mucho”.
The genesis of the Beatles’ first Parlophone single, “Love Me Do”, was probably the melody for the verses of “Don’t Be Cruel”, and the arrangement followed the voice and harmonica combination of Bruce Channel’s 1962 hit, “Hey! Baby”.