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Elvis Breaks Through - 'Heartbreak Hotel'

By Jack Kelly
Source: American Heritage
March 2, 2006 - 1:39:00 PM

Elvis Presley performing 'Heartbreak Hotel' in June 1956.
Elvis Presley performing 'Heartbreak Hotel' in June 1956.
Fifty years ago, on February 22, 1956, a song inspired by a suicide note and sung by a greasy-haired new musical talent entered Billboard's pop music top ten. The song was 'Heartbreak Hotel'. The singer, as Life magazine put it, was a 21-year-old 'hillbilly who howls'. His name was Elvis Presley. The American music scene would never be the same.

The Presley phenomenon had been gathering steam for months. The scene at a concert in Jacksonville, Florida, the previous May had given a hint of things to come. Some 14,000 teenage fans had turned out to hear Elvis. He had casually said, 'I'll see you all backstage, girls'. A riot followed after the show, with thousands of teenagers mobbing their idol.

But by early 1956 Presley's popularity still hadn't spread much beyond the South. In November he had played at the Woodrow Wilson Junior High School in Port Arthur, Texas, with an audience of 100 people. He continued to perform on the Louisiana Hayride country-music radio show, a job he had signed up for in 1954 at $18 a shot. He had recorded some classic tunes with Sam Phillips's Sun Records, but he had yet to score with a hit song.

Two developments had just put the spurs to his career. First, Elvis had jettisoned his manager and hired Colonel Tom Parker, an ex-circus worker with a genius for promotion. Parker had taken the cowboy singer Eddy Arnold and made him a star in the 1940s, complete with movie contract and Las Vegas bookings. He was hoping to do the same with Elvis.

The second development was that Elvis had signed with a major record label. RCA Records had bought out his contract from the musically innovative but financially strapped Phillips. Parker had induced the New York company to gamble $35,000 on his unproven Memphis crooner.

While Parker adroitly handled the singer's business arrangements, Elvis himself shaped the music. 'Heartbreak Hotel' was a strange choice for his first single on the new label, but it did reflect his eclectic musical sensibility. The country musician Tommy Durden had read the previous year about a well-dressed man who had killed himself and left a note that said, 'I walk a lonely street'. Durden talked over the story with Mae Axton, a schoolteacher and publicist for Parker in north Florida; she suggested erecting 'Heartbreak Hotel' at the end of that street, and the two wrote the song about it in half an hour. Axton offered Elvis a third of the writing credit if he would record it.

'Heartbreak Hotel' was a moody number with a jazzy tang and a tragic motif. Record executives questioned whether it would appeal to Elvis' teenage constituency. It did. The melancholy lyric and plaintive melody, the alteration between wild shouting and sob-laden crooning-it all exactly captured the Elvis mystique. His musical judgment was vindicated. 'I'm so lonely I could die', he sang, and the teenagers responded.

Presley was a great fan of the cinematic poses of Marlon Brando and James Dean, and he dreamed of becoming an actor himself. 'Heartbreak Hotel' reflected the influence of movies like 1955's Rebel Without a Cause, in which Dean brilliantly acted out teenage angst.

Elvis' emphatic, reverberating rendition of the song, together with Tom Parker's relentless promotion, made for an unprecedented hit. After the single reached the charts in February, it soared to number one by the end of March. It sold a million copies in just eight weeks.

The record turned Presley into a focus of nationwide youth hysteria. The phenomenon was not entirely new. Frank Sinatra had set off paroxysms among bobby-soxers in the 1940s, and hordes had gone wild over Rudy Vallee in the 1930s. But no performer had approached Elvis Presley's popularity.

Controversy helped. The bump-and-grind dance steps he worked into his act, along with the insinuation that dripped from his voice, were 'eeply disturbing to civic leaders, clergymen, some parents', as Life noted. A Miami paper labeled his performances 'obscene' A Jacksonville judge threatened him with jail.

One-night stands and radio could take a performer only so far. In previous decades it had been Hollywood movies that raised singers to the status of superstar, and Parker immediately began to negotiate a movie contract for Elvis. But by the 1950s a new medium was available, and television would become the engine of the singer's rise. He first appeared on the small screen in January 1956, singing on a show hosted by the swing-era stars Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Most of the audience that night tuned in to the more sophisticated Perry Como Show on another network. But in September, when he made his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, he drew 82 percent of the television audience-an incredible 54 million viewers. He had become a national sensation.

His impact was monumental. 'Heartbreak Hotel' topped the lists in both pop and country. He soon had number-one songs in three pop-chart categories simultaneously. He remained in the top ten continuously for the next seven years, and he launched the rock-and-roll juggernaut that would establish the style as the dominant form of popular music for the remainder of the century.

But in 1956 his fans weren't thinking about his place in music history. As one 15-year-old girl declared, 'When he does that on TV, I get down on the floor and scream'.

- Jack Kelly writes often for American Heritage magazine and is the author of Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics-A History of the Explosive That Changed the World.

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