It was 65 years ago Sunday (January 10th, 1956), that Elvis Presley recorded his first Number One hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” The song, its B-side “I Was The One,” and several other tunes were recorded in Nashville at Elvis' first RCA recording session, just two days after his 21st birthday. The previous November, RCA Records had bought his existing Sun Records contract for a whopping $40,000 — $5,000 of which went straight to Elvis as a signing bonus.
The music to “Heartbreak Hotel” was written by Mae Boren Axton — mother of country songwriter Hoyt Axton — with lyrics by Tommy Durden. Durden was inspired to write the lyrics after reading a newspaper account of a man who left behind a suicide note containing the phrase: “I walk a lonely street.” As was the case with many hits of the 1950's, Elvis' name was added as both a courtesy and incentive for recording the song — which also ensured that he received a third of the song's royalties.
“Heartbreak Hotel” featured Elvis' usual band at the time, with Bill Black on double bass, Scotty Moore on lead guitar, and D.J. Fontana on drums, along with country legends Floyd Cramer on piano and Chet Atkins on guitar. The single was rush-released on January 27th, 1956 and went on to become Elvis Presley's first million-seller.
We asked the late, great D.J. Fontana, who ultimately decided on the rhythm of Elvis' classic '50s singles: “Well, sometimes I would — sometimes Elvis would count it off the way he felt it. So it was a mixture of different guys and sometimes (guitarist) Scotty (Moore) would do it, just according to what kind of mood we was (laughs) all in, y'know? But it seemed like it all, it all turned out good for some reason. Who knows? Y'know what, those things happen.”
During his 2012 keynote address at Austin's South By Southwest music festival, Bruce Springsteen recalled seeing Elvis Presley debut on The Ed Sullivan Show on September 9th, 1956: “It was the evening that I realized that a white man could create magic. That you did not have to be constrained by your upbringing, by the way you looked, or by the social context that oppressed you. You could call upon your own powers of imagination, and you could create a transformative self. A certain type of transformative self that perhaps at any other moment in American history might've seemed difficult, if not impossible.”
When Elvis returned to live performances in 1969, “Heartbreak Hotel” was one of the few '50s numbers included in his act. He continued performing the song sporadically through 1974.