"Heartbreak Hotel" is a rock and roll song performed by Elvis Presley, with Bill Black (bass), Scotty Moore (guitar), D.J. Fontana (drums), Floyd Cramer (piano) and Elvis on rhythm guitar as the main supporting musicians. Recorded in January 1956 in Nashville, the song introduced Presley to the American national music consciousness. It was released as a single with the b-side song "I Was the One" on January 27, 1956. "Heartbreak Hotel" became the first No.1 pop record by Elvis and was the best selling single of 1956. The Beatles performed the song live in concert from 1957 to 1961.
This was the first song recorded by Elvis at RCA Victor. Elvis selected the song. He had earlier promised co-writer Mae Boren Axton that he would want to record it. He arrived at the studio with the song ready to record it without input from RCA. Although producer Steve Sholes was worried, he recorded the song taking it on faith that Elvis knew what he was doing. Most others at RCA Victor believed that it was a mistake, especially after hearing that the finished recording sounded nothing like the prior Elvis recordings at Sun Records.
On February 11, 1956, Presley introduced the song live on the CBS television variety program, Stage Show, starring Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, on March 11 and March 24, and on his third (and final) appearance at The Ed Sullivan Show, also on CBS, on January 6, 1957. Cumulative viewers for these first television performances are estimated at over 65 million. In 1968, he also sang it on his celebrated Comeback TV Special, in a medley with "Hound Dog" and "All Shook Up."
The song is an example of simple verse form based on the eight-bar blues progression. It was written by Thomas Durden, then a steel-guitarist in Smiling Jack Herring and his Swing Billies, and Mae Boren Axton, a teacher at Dupont Jr.-Sr. High School in Jacksonville, Florida, and the mother of singer/songwriter/actor Hoyt Axton. She was a publicist for Hank Snow, who was managed by Colonel Tom Parker, who also managed Elvis Presley. Elvis Presley received co-songwriting credit for his contributions to the final recorded release. In an interview, Durden conceded that he did not recognize the song after Elvis had made the changes to the song in the studio, including changes to the tempo, phrasing, lyrics, and overall sound.
"Heartbreak Hotel"'s lyrical matter deals with the singer's sadness, implicitly that following the end of a romantic relationship. It uses the metaphor of a hotel to represent this emotional state. Durden read about a suicide in the Miami Herald in 1955. A well-dressed man had removed all labels from his clothing, destroyed his identity papers and left a note saying: "I walk a lonely street."
Steve Sholes used a hallway at the studio to get a noticeably unusual echo for the single. Sholes was attempting to recapture the Sun Records sound however, Sam Phillips had used two tape recorders and a slight time delay to create the echo on prior Elvis recordings, unbeknowst to the RCA personnel.
Because the vocals on the original record featured such a heavy use of reverb, the song was immediately lampooned in radio humorist Stan Freberg's parody of the song, where the lead singer repeatedly asks for "more echo on [his] voice." When Elvis recorded "Hound Dog" a few months later, he had completely taken over the role of producer, using what he learned at Sun Records (although Steve Sholes was still credited) and decided not to use echo.
Song's status on the charts
"Heartbreak Hotel" was no. 1 for 8 weeks on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart when released in 1956 on RCA Records. The record was no. 1 for 17 weeks on the Billboard Country Chart and reached no. 3 on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues Chart. In 2006, more than 50 years after its initial release, "Heartbreak Hotel" returned to no. 1 on the Billboard Hot Singles Sales Chart when re-released.
The song was later ranked #45 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
There is now a real hotel named after the song, and located across from Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee.
A movie with the same title, based on a mythical incident involving the kidnapping of Elvis Presley, was released theatrically in 1988. It starred David Keith as Elvis Presley, and Tuesday Weld and was directed by Chris Columbus.
Cover versions of the song
During the late-1950s and early 1960s, Johnny Cash and his band (The Tennessee Three) performed a parody of Elvis' stage techniques as a comedy act during concerts. Johnny would have Marshall Grant (his bass player) hand him a comb, so he could re-style his hair in an exaggerated approximation of Elvis' hairstyle. He would then proceed to sing "Heartbreak Hotel" whilst shaking his hips and legs in the manner of Elvis. After his 'song', Johnny would take the comb back and put his hair back to normal, while saying "I walked past a barber shop earlier today, and the barber came out and said 'hey son, I'll give you an estimate'". He'd drop the comb (implying it had come alive from all the wax and such that was in his hair) and Marshall would shoot it with a blank pistol; Johnny and Luther Perkins (his lead guitarist) would jump off the stage in fright, and his drummer (W.S. Holland) would fall off his stool.
There are numerous cover versions of the song, including one by avant garde musician John Cale, although the mood of the song was significantly more unsettling than Elvis's version. This version first appeared in his concert on 1 June 1974 with Kevin Ayers, Brian Eno and Nico, and takes the depressing aspects of the song to its extremes.
Tommy Emmanuel has recently included this song into his repertoire and only involves him on lead guitar and vocals.
Dread Zeppelin, a reggae band fronted by an Elvis impersonator, does a medley of "Heartbreak Hotel" and Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker" entitled "Heartbreaker (At the End of Lonely Street)". This tune appears on Un-Led-Ed and De-jah Voodoo.
Three other songs, also entitled "Heartbreak Hotel" were released as singles, one by The Jacksons (later renamed "This Place Hotel"), a second by Whitney Houston, whose mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston performed in several Elvis recordings, both in the studio and live, as a member of the Sweet Inspirations. A third song called "Heartbreak Hotel" was performed by C. C. Catch. None of these songs are connected to Elvis's song.
Paul McCartney recorded "Heartbreak Hotel" using Bill Black's bass at Abbey Road Studios. McCartney said: "It was Elvis who really got me hooked on beat music. When I heard 'Heartbreak Hotel' I thought, this is it... Musically it's perfect."
Merle Haggard included "Heartbreak Hotel" on his 1977 album My Farewell To Elvis.
The Cadets recorded the song in 1957.
Connie Francis recorded a version in 1959.
Ace Cannon recorded the song in 1962.
Chuck Jackson recorded "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1962.
Adam Faith recorded the song in 1965.
Van Halen, featuring David Lee Roth on lead vocals, performed the song on their 1983 Diver Down World Tour. Van Halen also performed the song live in the 1970s.
Jimi Hendrix recorded the song as part of an Elvis Presley medley along with "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Trouble".
Guns N' Roses's original line-up of Axl Rose, Izzy Stradlin, Slash, Duff McKagan and Steven Adler have performed this song live on various shows in the Los Angeles area (mainly on Sunset Strip clubs) in 1986. Around the same time they have also recorded many studio versions of this song, including some demo takes that are available on many bootleg CDs. The band also recorded a final take of the song to be on the EP "Live! Like a Suicide" but this version was never released. Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin also performed this song with Tom Petty on the 1989 MTV's Video Music Awards. In July 2008, an unheard demo version of the song recorded by Guns n' Roses was released unnoficially by Cleopatra Records on an special LP edition of "Hollywood Rocks".
Bruce Springsteen has performed the song in concert.
Legendary guitarist Chet Atkins covered the song in 1963.
George Harrison of The Beatles remembered in an interview that "Heartbreak Hotel" was the first rock and roll record he ever heard.
"Heartbreak Hotel" was also a favorite of Jim Morrison of The Doors. The Doors performed "Heartbreak Hotel" as part of a medley in 1970 in Detroit in concert with Jim and Ray Manzarek sharing the vocals.
Led Zeppelin performed "Heartbreak Hotel" as part of a medley during their 1972 tour. The recording remains unreleased.
Willie Nelson and Leon Russell had a no. 1 cover version in 1979 on the country charts.
Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones said: "When I heard 'Heartbreak Hotel', I knew what I wanted to do in life."
Oldies group Sha Na Na has recorded "Heartbreak Hotel".
Fats Domino recorded his version of "Heartbreak Hotel".
An instrumental version of "Heartbreak Hotel" was recorded by early Texan rock group Tommy & The Tom Toms in 1960. It was produced by Major Bill Smith (Hey Baby, Hey Paula, Last Kiss) and released on Chess Records (#1773) under the pseudonym of the Bill Smith Combo.
Legendary southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded the song.
At The VH1 Divas Live 2002 concert pop icon Cher sang "Heartbreak Hotel" as part of an Elvis Presley tribute medley. She also was dressed up as Elvis whilst performing.
Country legend Roger Miller covered "Heartbreak Hotel" on his 1966 Words and Music album.
In 2007, Justin Timberlake performed "Heartbreak Hotel" in concert.
Fonzie, Henry Winkler, sang the song on Happy Days in the 1970s.
Tanya Tucker recorded the song in the 1970s.
US President Bill Clinton performed a cover of "Heartbreak Hotel" on sax on the Arsenio Hall Show in the 1990s during his campaign.
Tom Jones covered "Heartbreak Hotel". Jones said Elvis inspired him to become a singer: "It was the first time I heard 'Heartbreak Hotel'. It gave me hope that I could become a famous performer, too. I knew I had the voice and the flair for it. Of course, Elvis and I became great friends."
Kanye West refers to Heartbreak Hotel on his 808s and Heartbreak album on the song "Paranoid".
Roger McGuinn of the Byrds recorded a version of "Heartbreak Hotel". He stated that "Heartbreak Hotel" was the first rock record he heard in 1956. Afterwards, he got his parents to buy him a guitar. McGuinn wrote: "Elvis Presley inspired me with his single 'Heartbreak Hotel' to the point that I wanted to get a guitar and do what he was doing."
Al Kooper: "When I first heard this in 1956, I thought it was a little black man with a pork-pie hat hunched over a piano with a cigarette dangling from his mouth as he sang and tickled the ivories. My jaw dropped when I saw the real thing."
Canadian singer Gisele MacKenzie performed "Heartbreak Hotel" on the Your Hit Parade TV show in 1956 in a campy horror movie setting.
The song was also covered by Ann-Margret in 1965, Frijid Pink in 1970, Homer and Jethro, Conway Twitty, Delaney and Bonnie, Katie Melua, Pat Boone in 1963, Suzi Quatro in 1977, Bert Jansch in 1982, Link Wray, Hoyt Axton, Martin Carthy, Lynn Anderson, Buddy Love, James Gang, Nancy King, The Cramps, The Residents, Scooter Lee, Ronnie McDowell, Donna Fargo, The Jordanaires, Albert King, Doc Watson, The Soft Boys, Lawrence Welk, The Flamin' Groovies, The Underdogs, Stan Freberg, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kevin Ayers, Eno and Mike Oldfield, and Helmut Lotti.
In early 2004 Stephanie Butland covered this song, as a new version of the song.
The Vandals covered this song, changing it radically and incorporating comically over-explicit lyrics. It appears on their album Peace Thru Vandalism under the title "H.B. Hotel".
Another version of the song is featured on the game Karaoke Revolution Volume 2.
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson has sung this song in Memphis (The birthplace of Elvis) during his WWE match versus Mankind. His version was different: "Well, since Rock's baby left him / He found a new place to dwell / It's down at the end of Jabroni Drive / At Smackdown Hotel!" Dwayne has also admitted to being a huge Elvis fan. He also performed the song live on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on March 12, 2009.
Song mentioned in other songs
* Patty Loveless's single "Blue Side of Town" from her Honky Tonk Angel album in 1988 had a line in the song's chorus with "And it's Heartbrak Hotel. Yes I know it well. I hang around. The Blue Side of Town."
* U2 wrote a song called "A Room At The Heartbreak Hotel." It is a b-side to their "Angel of Harlem" single, released in 1988.
* "Heartbreak Hotel" is referenced in "Short Fat Fannie" by Larry Williams: "One day while I was visiting the Heartbreak Hotel."
* Dire Straits' song "Calling Elvis" mentions it in the chorus.
* Meryl Streep sings Shel Silverstein's "I'm Checking Out of This Heartbreak Hotel" in the final scene of "Postcards from the Edge."
* Kanye West uses the Heartbreak Hotel in his song, "Paranoid", in the line, "You wanna check into the Heartbreak Hotel, but sorry we're closed."
* The song is featured in Lilo and Stitch with Lilo herself singing "Heartbreak Hotel".
* In 2005, Uncut Magazine ranked the first performance of "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956 by Elvis Presley as the no.2 greatest and most important cultural event of the rock and roll era.
* Serbian rock musician, journalist and writer Dejan Cukić wrote about "Heartbreak Hotel" as one of the forty-six songs that changed history of popular music in his book 45 obrtaja: Priče o pesmama.
* Heartbreak Hotel is the name of the rebels' hideout in the musical 'We Will Rock You'.
* Several lines from the song are referenced in Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale.
* In Professional Wrestling, Shawn Michaels used to have a interview segment called The Heartbreak Hotel
* The song is performed by Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in the 2006 animated film Happy Feet, as a mash-up with the song "Kiss".
Single by Elvis Presley
B-side: "I Was the One"
Released: January 27, 1956
Recorded: January 10, 1956
Genre: Rock and roll
Label: RCA Records
Writer(s): Mae Boren Axton, Thomas Durden, and Elvis Presley
Producer: Steve Sholes