Elvis Checked In, Nationally, With Heartbreak Hotel

By: Hector Saldea
Source: San Antonio Express
January 14, 2006

Drenched in reverb, though not as much as memory might suggest, 'Heartbreak Hotel', signaled Elvis Presley's major label move to RCA Victor and onto the national radar when it was released on Jan. 27, 1956.

As haunting and wounded an opening line as rock 'n' roll had ever known - 'Well, since my baby left me ..'. It didn't sound anything like his pre-fame rockabilly singles for Sun Records. Gone, for the moment, was the slap-back tape echo perfected by Sam Phillips and the fast, rattling country and blues twang of a train running off the tracks.

But it was no less primal.

'It's strange, it's something you remember. It doesn't sound like anything. It still doesn't sound like anything anybody ever made', said Sony BMG historian, producer and author Ernst Jorgenson, an expert on Presley's RCA Victor catalog, recording dates and rare tapes.

But even Jorgenson wonders: 'Is 'Heartbreak Hotel' even rock 'n' roll?'

So lonely he could die, Presley delivered the lyric with down-and-out believability. By the time Scotty Moore's guitar solo comes in and the lopping piano rises up in the bluesy mix, listeners know they never want to check in there.

But kids wanted to hear it again and again. It became Presley's first No. 1 record.

Presley had just turned 21 when he cut the mono track live. Take No. 7 was the keeper.

RCA executives are said to have hated it. The day after 'Heartbreak Hotel' was released, producers of Presley's national television debut, on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show on CBS, asked him to sing another song.

Just in case, RCA prepared a four-song EP of unreleased Sun Records material to rush out should it flop.

But Elvis believed in the song, written primarily by Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden. Jorgensen learned that Presley had even introduced 'Heartbreak Hotel' from the stage at a small gig during Christmastime 1955, saying, 'This is going to be my first hit record'.

Jorgensen, author of Elvis Presley: A Life in Music - The Complete Recording Sessions, said Presley 'may have been the only believer'.

KTSA's Ricci Ware said only Marty Robbins' 'Don't Worry (About Me)', a mournful honky-tonkin' lament, would ever again send such shivers down his backbone.

'It was very different, and it did have a ton of reverb', Ware recalled about first hearing 'Heartbreak Hotel'. 'It was a very haunting tune'.

He would spin it at night on his 'Night Train' show at KREL-AM in Baytown.

'It wasn't so much dangerous as it was parents didn't approve of it', retired radio personality Bruce Hathaway recalled.

To some, Elvis Presley's 'Heartbreak Hotel' was considered vulgar.

'It was underground in that day', Hathaway said. 'But the (rock 'n' roll) craze was going that way. It's hard to believe that Elvis has been a phenomenon for that long'.

He was virtually unknown at the time outside of the hayride circuit and small roadhouses and county fairs in the South.

'The world knew nothing at all', Jorgenson said.

But radio listeners of the 'Louisiana Hayride' knew him well.

One such listener was 17-year-old Harlandale High School graduate Barbara Jean McGarity Denecamp, who found herself face to face with Presley and his mother at a 'Louisiana Hayride' concert in Shreveport, La., in November 1955. She was participating in a stage contest called 'Beat the Band'.

'All the way around to the back door, there were hundreds of screaming girls. You couldn't even move', Denecamp said. 'Elvis was walking around with his guitar and at the time, I didn't know it, but that was his mother sitting up against the back wall. I said, 'Hello'. But I was so nervous'.'

Denecamp loved the spooky 'Heartbreak Hotel', but she initially was attracted to Elvis' country element.

'Oh, I loved it. When he had Scotty Moore and Bill Black, the three-piece band was absolutely fabulous - the country sound', she said. 'I liked everything he had. I'll tell you the truth, he could play anything and I liked him. He was just one of a kind'.

In her mind, Presley took the place of Hank Williams. But in concert, it was a sheer pandemonium Williams had never experienced.

'You couldn't hear him at all', she said. 'It was just screaming and screaming, lights, flashbulbs. It was just a madhouse. And I never ever in my life thought Elvis Presley was vulgar'.

The RCA hits followed in an avalanche. Ware remembered 'Hound Dog' (the flip side was 'Don't Be Cruel'), which came later.

'We'd play one side, and 30 minutes later we'd flip it over and play the other side', he recalled.

Jorgenson, the Sony BMG historian, called the two-sided hit a double whammy.

Dallas-based artist Jeff Scott sees Presley as the embodiment of the American dream and 'bringing along this gumbo of American culture' to the forefront when he hit the national stage with 'Heartbreak Hotel'.

Scott's book, 'Elvis: The Personal Archives', found clues to Presley's mystique in the king's day-to-day belongings.

'He was able to communicate, through his personal style and thought, his music to the world', he said. 'You had this really humble man, on the one hand, that wanted to communicate his soul, his inner excitement about the music, and I think he used his clothes and his fashion sense as a way to bring out, as an entertainer, to connect his soul and the soul of American rural culture to a larger audience'.

Tom Perryman was running KSIJ-AM in Gladewater in the late '40s and mid-'50s. His show was called the 'Hillbilly Hit Parade'. He booked acts that played the 'Louisiana Hayride'.

'The stuff he did for Sun Records was what we called catbilly', Perryman said. 'It wasn't rock 'n' roll so much. We were hillbilly music. When that music came out with that beat, I was probably the only country station playing it in East Texas. Nobody knew what he was. He didn't know what he was. Being from Memphis, he liked that black music and all'.

Perryman recalled booking Presley in October 1954, and the trio made all of $90.

'They didn't have enough money to get out of Shreveport after the 'Hayride'.'

Though he personified youthful rebellion, Presley was a well-mannered young man, Perryman said - despite his looking a bit like a Memphis peacock.

'He was good lookin', a nice kid', he said. 'His hair wasn't coal black. It was actually a dark dirty blond. But he was a phenomenon and it will never happen again. I knew then he had something besides that rockabilly'.

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Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever. + Plus Bonus DVD Audio.

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