The lyrics were written by a steel guitar player from Nashville named Tommy Durden, who was once a dishwasher repairman. Durden, who died in 1999, said 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 song was written. She got a local country singer named Glenn Reeves 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."
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.
In 2016, Rolling Stone reported
that the famous line, "I walk a lonely street," came not from a suicide note, but more likely the writings of a man who was killed while robbing a liquor store. This man, Alvin Krolik, made news when he turned himself in to police in 1953 following a crime spree. A passage from his unpublished memoir was mentioned in some stories: This is the story of a person who walked a lonely street. I hope this will help someone in the future.
In 1955, he tried to rob a liquor store in El Paso, Texas and was shot and killed by the owner. This story also made news, with some papers running headlines with variations on the "Walked a Lonely Street" line: the El Paso Herald-Post
went with "Story of Person Who Walked Lonely Street."
None of these stories appeared in the Miami Herald
, but it's likely that the songwriters came across it in some publication.
The first Elvis recordings were done at Sun Studios in Memphis, as he was signed to Sam Phillips' Sun Records. On November 21, 1955, RCA Victor bought his contract from Sun for $35,000.
The first RCA sessions were held on January 10, 1956 at their Nashville studios, and that's where Elvis recorded this song. His backing musicians were his mainstays Scotty Moore on electric guitar and Bill Black on bass, D.J. Fontana on drums, Floyd Cramer on piano and Chet Atkins on acoustic guitar.
The song got a boost when Elvis performed it on Stage Show, a TV series hosted by big band leaders and Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, on February 11, 1956, his third appearance on the show. On April 3, he performed it on The Milton Berle Show, and on April 21 the song reached #1 in the US, where it stayed for eight weeks.
Elvis was 21 years old when this song was released on January 27, 1956. He had released a few singles and gained a large following in the South, but "Heartbreak Hotel" made him a national sensation. It was his first #1 hit on the US Billboard Pop chart, and it also topped the Country chart. Over the next seven years, he always had at least one song in the Top 10 on the Pop chart.
Elvis first performed this song live in December 1955, telling club owner Rob King, "This is gonna be my first hit."
This was Elvis' first release on his new label, RCA Victor. He was an unproven talent at the time, and some executives at the label thought it was a bad choice, since both musically and lyrically it veered from convention (they didn't think teenage girls would want to hear about a guy "so lonely he could die").
"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 said.
There is a "Heartbreak Hotel" in Memphis
located across the street from Graceland. Rooms feature '50s decor and framed photos of Elvis. For a romantic getaway, try the Burning Love Suite.
This earned Elvis his first gold record, given for sales of over one million.
Billboard presented Elvis with a "Double Triple Crown" award 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.
This was first offered to The Wilburn Brothers, a country music duo who had a handful of hit records in the '50s and '60s and formed the music publishing company that signed an up-and-comer named Loretta Lynn. The brothers turned down the tune, calling it "strange and almost morbid."