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HEARTBREAK HOTEL, A HIT HAUNTED BY DARKNESS
SUN Records boss, Sam Philips called the song ‘a morbid mess’, but it shot to number one
July 18,  2017   -  The Financial Times  /  Elvis Express Radio
Next month, when the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death is commemorated, there will no doubt be a great deal of morbid interest in the circumstances of the singer’s final
moments. But there is morbidity, too, in Presley’s first number one single, “Heartbreak Hotel”, released in January 1956 and a national breakthrough for the singer following a series
of regional hits.

Presley had recorded the song earlier in January for his new label, RCA, and when his old boss at Sun Records, Sam Phillips, heard an acetate of the recording, he declared it a
“morbid mess”, while many executives at RCA were similarly unimpressed by its downbeat mood. Yet it stayed at number one in the US for eight weeks, and also inspired countless
musicians, among them John Lennon and Keith Richards, for whom hearing this darkly thrilling song was a musical awakening.


The song itself has a murky history. For years the tale was told by its writers, Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton, that the lyrics — in particular the line about “lonely street” —
were inspired by a story in the Miami Herald of a man who committed suicide and left a note which read, “I walk a lonely street”. Hours of diligent digging by journalists and
researchers failed to yield a relevant article in the Herald.

Then, last year, Rolling Stone reckoned it had finally unearthed the true story behind the song. It concerned Alvin Krolik, a career criminal who had found redemption, handing
himself in to Chicago police with a confession and a note: “This is the story of a person who walked a lonely street. I hope this will help someone in the future.” The story caught on
among newspapers (though not the Miami Herald). A couple of years later Krolik returned to his criminal ways, robbing a liquor store, where he was shot dead by the owner. The
death of the man who “walked a lonely street” once again hit the headlines, and Rolling Stone is convinced that this was the story that inspired Durden and Axton.

Whatever: when Presley was first played a demo of the song by Axton in a hotel room, he is reported to have said, “Hot dog, Mae, play that again!” “Heartbreak Hotel” is an eight-
bar blues, taken at quite a lick by Presley and his studio band, which included the great guitarist Chet Atkins. It was Presley’s idea to use a hallway in the studio to create the song’s
distinctive echo. Presley was given a one-third writing credit, essentially as a sweetener for agreeing to record the song.

Over the years Presley continued to play it; a TV comeback special in 1968 shows him on knockabout form, laughing and forgetting the lyrics. He last sang it on May 29 1977 at the
Civic Center in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, others — more than 200, at the last count — tackled the song. Johnny Cash sang a comic, exaggeratedly hip-swivelling version on TV in 1959, which he described as
“an impersonation of a rock’n’roll singer impersonating Elvis”. English folkie Bert Jansch accentuated the bluesiness in his 1982 version. Punk-rockabilly band The Cramps played a
typically turbulent version in 1987.

But the version that stands miles above all others came from former Velvet Underground member John Cale. In 1974 Cale was signed to Island Records, whose A&R man Richard
Williams planned a promotional concert featuring some of the label’s artists. So Cale, Kevin Ayers, Eno and Nico played a show at London’s Rainbow Theatre (recorded for an
album, June 1, 1974).

Cale’s contribution was a pitch-black, deconstructed version of “Heartbreak Hotel”, driven by a metallic riff and with a vocal melody that bore only a passing resemblance to Presley’
s. A wailing female backing vocalist added to the horror.

Cale later told The Creative Independent website: “If it didn’t have words like that, that song wouldn’t have survived. All the verses were really something special . . . It sounded to me
like each contributor to the song had gotten a verse in, because if you read the verses, they’re about very different things. They make a very rich portrait of a character.”

Cale reprised the song for his 1975 Slow Dazzle album and has continued to revisit it in live shows over the years; it has been acclaimed by some music critics as the finest cover
version of all time. Growling, howling and grinding, it mines the song’s darkness, and takes “morbid” to a whole new level.

We are interested to hear from our readers. Is John Cale’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ the greatest cover version of all time? Please let us know in the comments below.

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Elvis holds the Gold Record for Heartbreak Hotel, his first million seller,