Where rock’s memory lane is a lonely street
The first words most people heard Elvis Presley sing in the 1950s were: “Well, since my baby left me / I found a new place to dwell / It’s down at the end of lonely street / At heartbreak hotel.”
But who did Presley himself first hear singing those opening lines from “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first No. 1 hit?
The answer -- a radio DJ named Glenn Reeves -- and the original acoustic “demo” recording of the song are contained in Ken Sharp’s “Elvis Presley: Writing for the King,” an enterprising and thoroughly entertaining new book on Presley’s music.
“Writing” contains interviews with nearly 150 songwriters whose tunes were recorded by Presley, as well as an accompanying CD that includes 25 song demos sent to Presley by writers or publishers. Those recordings -- all believed to be available for the first time -- include such hits as "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” “Viva Las Vegas” and “Burning Love.” A second CD contains live recordings from Presley’s Las Vegas shows.
Sharp’s text consists chiefly of first-person accounts by the songwriters of their songs and their dealings with Presley. The demo CD may even be more fascinating, as we hear the skeletal versions of the tunes and how singers tried to imitate Presley’s vocal style to demonstrate how right the songs were for him.
“Elvis Presley: Writing for the King”
Follow That Dream/Sony/BMG Denmark
The back story: The writing credits on “Heartbreak Hotel” read Mae Boren Axton, Tommy Durden and Elvis Presley, but the demo shows the song was finished by the time Presley heard it. In the text, Axton explains how the song came about and why Presley ended up with writing credit.
Axton met Presley at a concert she promoted in Jacksonville, Fla., in May of 1955, when the charismatic 20-year-old singer was still on Sun Records but showed every sign of being a rock ‘n’ roll sensation. Axton, mother of folk singer and actor Hoyt Axton, joked about how she would write him a million-seller.
Months later, Durden, who had collaborated with Axton on some songs, spotted a newspaper account of a man who left behind a one-line suicide note: “I walk a lonely street.”
Axton thought it was a great image for a song and suggested they put a heartbreak at the end of that lonely street. She and Durden wrote the song in less than a half-hour and asked Reeves to sing it in the anxious, dramatic style of some of Presley’s Sun recordings. In return they offered to give Reeves one-third of the royalties, but he didn’t think much of the song: “Forget it, I don’t want my name on that silly thing!”
But Presley liked “Heartbreak Hotel” so much that he asked Axton to play it again and again. He then recorded it as his first single after switching from Sun to the far more powerful RCA label.
Though songwriters in those days sometimes gave singers a share of the songwriting credit (and royalties) in exchange for the singer recording the song, Axton said she gave Presley a share of the “Heartbreak Hotel” writing credit (and royalties) because she liked him and wanted to help him buy a gift for his parents.
Later, however, writers complained about Presley representatives demanding a share of the publishing royalties before allowing Presley to record their tunes. Presley rebelled against that practice when some writers threatened not to let him have their songs if they had to give up part of their royalties.
“Writing for the King” is filled with the reflections of other writers who connected with Presley, among them the teams of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (whose credits included “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog”) and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (“Viva Las Vegas” and “Little Sister”). Others included Ben Weisman (“Follow That Dream”), Tony Joe White (“Polk Salad Annie”), Mark James (“Suspicious Minds”) and Dennis Linde (“Burning Love”).
It is amazing to hear how well some of the singers on the demos capture Presley’s vocal style, yet he added a sense of purity and power to the recordings that gave the songs an edge.
“When you wrote a song for Elvis Presley, you knew you were going to get a performance plus,” Pomus says in the book. “He was one of those few people that when he recorded a song of yours he would do it in the way you envisioned it and then bring something else into it.”
“Writing for the King,” published in Europe, is available in the U.S. only at Graceland or via www.elvis.com.
Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights CD reissues and other historical pop music items