The lyrics were written by a steel guitar player from Nashville named Tommy Durden, who was once a dishwasher repairman. He was inspired by a newspaper story about a man who killed himself and left behind a note saying only, "I walk a lonely street." Another Nashville songwriter named Mae Boren Axton wrote the music, and Elvis' manager Tom Parker arranged for Elvis to receive a songwriting credit in exchange for singing it. This meant that royalties were split between Durden, Axton, and Elvis. In a 1982 interview, Durden said this song "has paid the rent for more than 20 years."
Mae Axton was living in Jacksonville when this was written. She got a local Country singer to do the demo for Elvis, who did the demo the way he thought Elvis would do it. Elvis liked it, and did it exactly that way. By the way, the country singer didn't care for Elvis and thought that "the boy wouldn't go far." (thanks, Barbara - Jacksonville, FL)
Nashville guitar legend Chet Atkins played on this. Atkins died of cancer in 2001 at age 77.
This became a hit after Elvis performed it on The Dorsey Brothers TV show in 1956. It was his third appearance on the show.
This was Elvis' first #1 hit on the US Billboard pop charts.
Elvis first performed this song live in December 1955, telling club owner Rob King, "This is gonna be my first hit."
This reportedly caused widespread panic among RCA executives when they heard it. "They all told me it didn't sound like anything, it didn't sound like his other records and I'd better not release it, better go back and record it again," producer Steve Sholes later stated.
Grammy winner Floyd Cramer played piano on this track.
This earned Elvis his first gold record, given for sales of over one million.
On The Milton Berle Show, Berle presented Elvis with two Billboard "Triple Crown" awards for simultaneously reaching #1 on all six of their pop and country charts with this song. The song also reached the Top 5 on the R&B chart.
This was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1995.
Bill Clinton's first US presidential campaign received a much-needed boost when he played this on the saxophone as a guest on The Arsenio Hall Show. During that campaign against the first George Bush, Clinton said, "You know, Bush is always comparing me to Elvis in sort of unflattering ways. I don't think Bush would have liked Elvis very much, and that's just another thing that's wrong with him."
Lynyrd Skynyrd released an acoustic version on their album Endangered Species. In a low-budget arthouse movie called Grutzi Elvis, Clash singer Joe Strummer did soundtrack work for the film, and recorded two cover versions of the song - a Cajun style acoustic version with German session musicians, and a more rocking version rumored to be an out-take from recording sessions from the Clash. He also regularly covered the song with his pre-Clash band, the 101ers.
The book Untold Gold: The Story Behind Elvis' Number One Hits claims the song was inspired by a 1955 Miami Herald story about a man who leapt from a hotel window after burning all evidence of his identity. His suicide letter had a single line: "I walk a lonely road."
Intrigued, we searched for said article at the Miami Dade library, hoping to unearth this song story. After a great deal of searching and many conversations with library historians, we concluded that this article did not exist, and that the story was an urban legend.