The Heartbreak Hotel and Its Florida Connection
By Gary McKechnie
Although Elvis Presley and Memphis are forever linked, The King owes much of his success to a tragic event that happened in Florida.
Until 1956, although he had built up a reputation across the South, Elvis was still largely a regional artist. He had toured in Texas and played in Florida several times – notably at the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville, the Polk in Lakeland, and at the Homerly Hesterly Armory in Tampa where a photographer captured the shot used for the cover of his first album.
But in 1956 it was Heartbreak Hotel that helped to catapult Elvis into superstardom, and the song had a distinct Florida connection. The sad fact is that after a distraught man killed himself in a Miami hotel, the Miami Herald ran a story that detailed a line in his suicide note:
“I walk a lonely street.”
Well, that line caught the attention of Jacksonville’s Mae Boren Axton. In addition to teaching English at Dupont High School, she was a part-time songwriter and publicist and was the person who, following a Jacksonville show, introduced 19-year-old Elvis to the man who would make him a star: Tom Parker.
She thought of a hotel at the end of Lonely Street, where the bellhop’s tears keep flowing and the desk clerk’s dressed in black…
Working with co-writer Tommy Durden, the song was written in November 1955 and presented to Elvis at a music convention in Nashville. Recorded in January 1956, by May it was #1 across the nation.
Elvis' Heartbreak Hotel topped Billboard 's Top 100 chart for seven weeks, Cashbox 's pop singles chart for six weeks, was #1 on the Country and Western chart for 17 weeks, and became Elvis Presley's first million-seller.
In 1995 Elvis' Heartbreak Hotel was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and in 2004 Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" – the same year it made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”