Fifty years ago, it was as haunting and wounded an opening line as rock ‘n’ roll had ever known — “Well, since my baby left me …”
Hector Saldana, San Antonio Express-News
Friday, January 13, 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.
Sony BMG is commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Heartbreak Hotel” by re-releasing it as a single this week. A new deluxe box set, “Elvis 1 Singles,” arrives Jan. 24.
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 Jorgensen, an expert on Presley’s RCA Victor catalog, recording dates and rare tapes.
But even Jorgensen wonders: “Is ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ even rock ‘n’ roll?”
The future king of rock ‘n’ roll — who would have turned 71 on Jan. 8 — certainly thought so.
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 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. 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.
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.”
He was virtually unknown at the time outside of the hayride circuit and small roadhouses and county fairs in the South.
But radio listeners of the “Louisiana Hayride” knew him well.
One such listener was 17-year-old 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.
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.
The RCA hits followed in an avalanche. Ware remembered “Hound Dog” (the flip side was “Don’t Be Cruel”), which came later.
Tom Perryman was running KSIJ-AM in Gladewater, Texas, in the late ’40s and mid-’50s. His show was called the “Hillbilly Hit Parade.”
“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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