Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” Lyrics Meaning
The “Heartbreak Hotel”, as the reader has probably already deduced, is not a literal but symbolic location as presented in this song. And basically what it represents is not only the singer (Elvis Presley) himself being heartbroken, but him also being able to perceive that he is not the only one suffering from this emotional malady. Indeed we see that the Heartbreak Hotel is “always crowded”, yet simultaneously “you can still find room”. Moreover the employees of the establishment are accordingly depressing figures. And overall it is construed as a location where those who are downtrodden due to being dumped by their lovers can congregate in their misery.
The singer’s own suffering is brought to the forefront during the chorus. This is when he addresses the lover who put him in this state directly. And he lets it be known, simply put, that he now ‘gets so lonely he could die’. Those who have truly had their hearts broken know the type of pain he’s referring to. It’s like when you’re so upset in the aftermath of being dumped that you really have no idea of what to do next.
A Truly Depressing Song
So in truth, even though Elvis renders an excitable interpretation of the matter at hand, this song is quite depressing. This was a fact that was also noticed by many of those involved in its creation, as Elvis’s label bosses were pretty convinced that it wouldn’t take off due to said sentiment.
Indeed as the legend originally went, “Heartbreak Hotel” was inspired by a suicide note some dude left behind before taking his own life, with said event being reported in the paper. And allegedly the note consisted of only one sentence, “I walk a lonely road”.
After some thorough research though – the type which is afforded to hits of this magnitude – it was later concluded that such was an urban legend. And the original sentiment behind this tune were rather inspired by one Alvin Krolik (1928-1955), a career criminal – shot dead in the act in 1955 – who also apparently had an affinity for writing. And the aforementioned quote would have actually been “I walk a lonely road”.
So at the end of the day, we can say that it was pretty clever for the songwriters to take such a tragedy and be able to flip it into a song about a completely different topic, even if it still possesses a depressing undertone.
We can also say that Elvis was a musical genius, being able to take such a topic and flip it himself to the point where it almost sounded cool to be heartbroken. Indeed as you will see in the trivia section, Heartbreak Hotel is one of the most-celebrated and even influential songs in the history of American music.
Did Elvis Presley write “Heartbreak Hotel”?
Elvis Presley is a credited writer of this song, as are Mae Boren Axton (1914-1997) and Tommy Durden (1919-1999).
It was Mae Boren Axton, the “Queen Mother of Nashville” as she was called, who approached Elvis to record “Heartbreak Hotel”. That interaction took place during November of 1955. And Elvis went on to record the tune on 10 January 1956, just a couple of days after he turned 21. And he did so alongside his own band, The Blue Moon Boys, who were active from 1954 to 1968.
There has been some disagreement between Mae Axton and Tommy Durden as in which of them had the most input in this song’s creation. However, another musician named Glenn Reeves (1930-1998), who was a professional rockabilly singer, may have also contributed to its composition. In fact he laid down the original demo upon which Elvis based his own performance of the tune. And it was Presley’s strong and visibly liking of said demo which made him want to record “Heartbreak Hotel”, as he was convinced it would be his first big hit. It also seems that Elvis being credited as a writer was part of the overall pitch Mae Axton used to convince him to record it.
When did “Heartbreak Hotel” come out?
The song was officially released just a few weeks after it was recorded. Elvis’ management released it as a standalone single, on 27 January 1956. On the B-side was another Elvis track entitled “I Was the One”.
Even though this was the first single Elvis released under RCA, literally speaking it was the second song he recorded for them. The first song he laid down, on the same date of 10 January 1956, was his cover of “I Got a Woman” (1956), which would be released some months later.
Prior to ending up in the hands of Elvis Presley, “Heartbreak Hotel” had also been presented to The Wilburn Brothers, Virgil (1930-1982) and Teddy (1931-2003), who were a famous country music duo of the day. However, much like Glenn Reeves, they were intimidated by what they described as its “strange and almost morbid” tone.
The label behind this track is RCA Victor (aka RCA Records). “Heartbreak Hotel” was the first single Elvis ever released for said company. He had just recently signed with them for $35,000, which, which as of 2021 would equal about $300K.
A Major Hit for the King
After Elvis finished his recording, no one involved really liked Heartbreak Hotel beside the singer himself. RCA Records in particular were unimpressed, as they wanted to recapture the sound of the King’s recordings under Sun Records – the label he was at prior – but were unable to do so. But Elvis himself was convinced that it would hit, and it did in fact turn out to be his first national smash.
For instance, it marked the first time that an Elvis song sold at least 1,000,000 copies (selling 300,000 copies within its first week of release). It was also the first time one of his songs achieved RIAA-certified gold status. Furthermore, it topped the charts which would later become the Billboard Hot 100 and Cashbox Top 100. It also achieved this same remarkable feat on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs listing (back then they were respectively referred to as the Billboard Top 100, Cashbox Pop Singles chart and Billboard Country and Western chart).
The song further reached an impressive number two on the UK Singles Chart, marking the first time Elvis had charted in the UK as well.
It also peaked at number five on Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues Records list (which has since come to be known as the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart). And in doing so, it became the first song in history to make it onto the top 5 of Billboard’s pop chart (the Hot 100), R&B chart and country chart all at the same time.
Even More Success for “Heartbreak Hotel”
Back in those days music videos didn’t really exist. However, songs could still experience a big boost in popularity by being featured on a number of televised music/variety programs of the era. For instance, it has been noted that “Heartbreak Hotel” really took off after Elvis performed it on a program called Stage Show on 11 February 1956. And it claimed the top position on the Hot 100 after Elvis rendered it on The Milton Berle Show of 21 April 1956.
“Heartbreak Hotel” has also earned a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame, being inducted in 1995. About a decade later, in 2003, Rolling Stone placed it at 35th on its list of the 500 Greatest Song of All Time. Comparably around that same time, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame also dubbed it one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
A Very Influential Song
Music legends that have gone on record as having been directly influenced by this Elvis classic during their formative years include The Beatles’ George Harrison and John Lennon. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones were also heavily influenced by this classic. Another former Beatle, Paul McCartney, described the tune as being “musically… perfect”.
Popular Covers of “Heartbreak Hotel”
And the song is also recognized as being one which The Beatles regularly covered, though back in their pre-fame days when they were known as The Quarrymen.
Macca also covered it later in his career as a soloist. And other big-name artists who came out with their own renditions include the following:
- Queen (alongside Adam Lambert)
- Guns N’ Roses
- Neil Diamond
- Jimmy Hendrix
- Van Halen
- Lynyrd Skynyrd
- Johnny Cash
- John Cale
- Bob Dylan
- Bruce Springsteen
- Tom Jones
- Justin Timberlake
It also has been performed, in film, by Val Kilmer (in “True Romance”, 1993), as well as Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in “Happy Feet” (2006).
Leon Russell and Willie Nelson also came out with a collaborative cover in 1979. And their version, like Elvis’s, topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.
President Clinton and “Heartbreak Hotel”
“Heartbreak Hotel” also holds the distinction of being the song Bill Clinton, who was then a Presidential candidate, famously performed on the 3 June 1992 episode of “The Arsenio Hall Show”. Said performance proved to be very beneficial to Clinton, who went on to become US President, especially as far as young voters were concerned.
A Real Hotel named after this Classic
There is also an actual Elvis Presley Heartbreak Hotel which is located in Memphis, Tennessee. It is adjacent to Graceland, the mansion recognized as being Presley’s primary place of residence during his lifetime and a major tourist attraction since. Accordingly, the Heartbreak Hotel itself is filled with Elvis memorabilia.
Notable Live Performances
The last time Elvis Presley was able to perform this song live was on 29 May 1977. The venue was the Civic Center located in Baltimore, Maryland. And the first time he did so was during December of 1955 at a show called Louisiana Hayride.
Was a film made for this song?
No. However, a fictional comedy about Elvis’s life, entitled Heartbreak Hotel, exists. Said film came out in 1988 and stars David Keith playing the role of Elvis Presley.