Heartbreak Hotel (1956)
We are conditioned to think of Elvis Presley as a pop phenomenon, his work usually disembodied from his persona, a mere icon we can project upon as we do Marilyn Monroe. Or we think of him as just a rocker, or just a balladeer in sequined white costumes schmoozing older women in 1970s Las Vegas.
But in 1956 Elvis was the consummate artist. “Heartbreak Hotel” was an unusual choice of songs for him, having only recorded works like “That’s All Right (Mama)” and “Blue Kentucky” for the A and B sides of his first single in 1954. Those songs admittedly were an innovative blend of field-hand Blues and Bluegrass, but they could scarcely be called avant-garde.
Then along came “Heartbreak Hotel.” It is cinematic – film noir-ish – in construction and point of view, an impassive eye cast upon an emotional shipwreck. The emptiness, loneliness and hopelessness of a jilted lover are built into the peculiar hotel brick on brick, a lodging where others condemned to a similar fate “dwell.”
This is no day spa…
The echo-y production was a failed attempt to repeat Elvis’s earliest sparse-sounding recordings with Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis. It produced a mood that has been variously described as “strange and morbid” (Doyle and Teddy Wilburn); “the silliest thing I’ve ever heard” (Glen Reeves); a “morbid mess,” (Phillips).
Elvis, upon first hearing it from the songwriters exclaimed “Hot dog, Mae, play that again!” He later predicted “Heartbreak” would be his first big hit. It has turned double platinum.
The minimalist lead guitar by Scotty Moore, the backstreets piano by legendary session pianist Floyd Cramer and the burp-gun drumming of D.J. Fontana form the foundation of the hotel. Guitar god of a bygone era, Chet Atkins, provides the punctuating rhythm guitar. Bill Black plays the double bass, a touch that gives the song the dark, urban sensibility that has kept it so high in the esteem of generations of musicians and fans.
While it started out as a standard eight-bar Blues composition, under the guidance of Elvis and Atkins as producers, it became the two-minute version of Hollywood’s noir period – 1950’s In A Lonely Place; 1947’s In A Lonely Place, and The Big Combo (right) from 1955 come to mind.
“Heartbreak Hotel” is a tale, short compact, punchy, as quick to temper as a private eye unjustly accused of murdering his client’s husband. The listener is put on pins and needles. It’s even got characters aside from the singer/protagonist:
Well, the bellhop’s tears keep flowin’
and the desk clerk’s dressed in black
Well they been so long on lonely street
They ain’t ever gonna look back
The inspiration for the writing of the song was torn from the front page of The Miami Herald. It seems some heartbroken poor soul, after destroying all of his identification, jumped from a hotel window, killing himself. The suicide note said dryly, “I walk a lonely street.”
Elvis, subsuming the suicide’s harrowing emotions, belts out the tune with the ultimate in breakdown feeling, delivers the chorus in a debilitated, half-human mumble:
You make me so lonely baby
I get so lonely
I get so lonely I could die
The coda creepily buttons up the song, the mini-film:
Hey now, if your baby leaves you
and you got a tale to tell
Just take a walk down lonely street
to Heartbreak Hotel
Now there’s an invitation.
Elvis would drop his avant-garde edginess quickly and venture all over the musical landscape. His pure rockers were influential, but were part of the rushing torrent of Rock-N-Rollers like Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. So Elvis, as rocker, and the King, has to stand amidst a large choir of fathers of the genre.
“Heartbreak Hotel,” on the other hand has a number of interesting, odd offspring, as one would imagine. Works as disparate as The Doors’ “Wishful, Sinful” and “People Are Strange”; The Rolling Stones “Memory Motel”; “After The Gold Rush” by Neil Young; and much of the suffering imagery in Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands period owe a debt to the breakthrough Elvis hit.
The recording and issuing of “Heartbreak Hotel” is one of the great cultural milestones of 20th century America, second really only to “Like A Rolling Stone.”
- According to Brown and Boeske in Down At The End Of Lonely Street: Life And Death Of Elvis Presley, one internal memo at RCA records shows an executive writing “We certainly can’t release that one.”
- Paul McCartney, when discussing “Heartbreak Hotel,” said “It’s the way Elvis sings it as if he is singing from the depths of hell. His phrasing, use of echo… Musically, it’s perfect.”
Also by Elvis Presley on SongMango.com:
- Hound DogIt rocks with the fury of pent up youth. The vocals are rousing, raucous, lightly bitter, and belted out with reckless abandon.