As morbid as it might sound, “Heartbreak Hotel,” the song that catapulted Elvis Presley into national fame, was inspired by a suicide note left behind by an unknown man.
Although Elvis Presley had already been active in the industry since 1953, it wasn’t only until about three years later that one of his singles finally made it to the top of the Billboard charts. In January 1956, Presley made his first recordings with RCA, then his new label, and among these was “Heartbreak Hotel.” The song was penned by Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden in 1955, and was said to be based on a newspaper report about a man and the suicide note he left behind, which read, “I walk a lonely road.” Presley reportedly took an immediate liking to the song after Boren played the demo to him. The budding musician played “Heartbreak Hotel” for the first time on December 9, 1955, confident that the song would be his first hit.
But according to an anecdote, citing RCA’s internal memos, the label’s executives did not like “Heartbreak Hotel,” with one supposedly going as far as stating that they “certainly can’t” release it. Sam Philips, Elvis’ former boss at Sun Records, remarked that it was “a morbid mess.” Meanwhile, the single’s producer Steve Sholes recalled, referring to RCA execs, “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. I better go back and record it again.”
Although Sholes was said to haven’t been as confident as Presley regarding the song’s potential, he nevertheless pushed for it, believing that the musician knew what he was doing. And so on January 27, the single “Heartbreak Hotel” was released with “I Was The One” on the B-side. The following day, Presley made his TV debut on the “Milton Berle Show,” the first in a series of six, and was only allowed to play “Heartbreak Hotel” in half of those.
Despite being rejected at first, “Heartbreak Hotel” proved to be a huge success quite quickly. It first entered the Billboard Pop and the Country and Western charts at numbers 68 and 9, respectively. After a short while, it also made the top five of the R&B chart, making “Heartbreak Hotel” only one of two singles to reach all three Billboard charts following the Carl Perkins original, “Blue Suede Shoes.” “Heartbreak Hotel” was Presley’s very first million-seller, earning him an RIAA-certified gold record and the honor of being 1956’s bestselling single.
Presley, indeed, had the right gut feel all along. “Heartbreak Hotel” was not only a commercial success, one that catapulted the musician to stardom and would closely be associated with him for years to come; it practically became a pop culture icon in itself. It was praised by various music critics and made a lasting impact on the subsequent generations of musicians, including John Lennon and George Harrison of The Beatles, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. Many artists including The Quarrymen, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, and Suzi Quatro. In addition, the song has been recognized as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and #45 in The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time by the Rolling Stone, To top it all off, “Heartbreak Hotel” made its mark outside of music as well: a movie, an actual hotel just a stone’s throw away from Presley’s Graceland home, a novel, and several restaurants in the US were named after it.