In 20 minutes in 1955, songwriter Mae Axton assured her position in the pantheon of rock 'n' roll royalty. Taking the solitary line from an unidentified man's suicide note, "I walk a lonely street," Axton imagined the destination for the protagonist: Heartbreak Hotel. Working with songwriter and partner Tommy Durden, Axton crafted the song that became an international sensation. Axton and Durden's "Heartbreak Hotel" became Elvis Presley's first number-one hit for RCA Victor, and perhaps the best-recognized song of his career. While she wrote more than 200 songs for such artists as Perry Como, Wanda Jackson, Faron Young, Conway Twitty, Hank Snow, Patsy Cline, and Glenn Reeves, it is for "Heartbreak Hotel" that she will be remembered.
Axton was born on September 14, 1914, in Bardwell, Texas and attended the University of Oklahoma, where she studied journalism. Following college she relocated to Jacksonville, Florida, where she and her husband, John, taught high school. In addition to teaching, Axton hosted segments on local radio and television and performed public relations and concert promotion duties for shows in the Jacksonville vicinity where, in 1953, she encountered Colonel Tom Parker, Presley's future manager. Angered by Parker's attitude toward her—made worse by Parker's famous and frequent utterance: "The Colonel is the boss"—Axton responded to Parker, who was neither a real Colonel nor her employer: "You be the boss, be the big wheel but don't ever ask me to do anything for you." Legend has it that Parker apologized, reputedly the only time the notoriously hard-headed manager ever apologized in his professional career. Axton was to play a huge role in introducing Parker to Presley in 1955, when she finagled a deal to put Presley on the same concert lineup with country legend Hank Snow, who was managed by Parker at the time. After witnessing the raw carnal energy of the young Memphis performer and its impact on the young, female crowd, Parker dropped Snow and signed Presley. Parker soon signed Presley to a major record label, RCA Victor, which ended the singer's days as a member of Memphis's Million Dollar Quartet on Sam Phillips's Sun Records label, a roster that included Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins.
Axton became a force to be reckoned with on the Jacksonville music scene, writing her own songs or collaborating with Durden, and placing songs with several influential artists. In Nashville, Axton was introduced by comedienne Minnie Pearl to legendary music publisher Fred Rose, who, with partner Roy Acuff, started Acuff-Rose, one of the largest music publishing companies in the United States. The Acuff-Rose catalog counted such luminaries as Hank Williams on its roster. Axton impressed Rose with a song she had written for a Dub Dickerson recording session. By the time she and Durden sat down to write "Heartbreak Hotel," Axton had penned or co-authored 14 rock 'n' roll songs that made some headway on the hit singles charts. But nothing so big as the splash she would achieve with the Presley hit.
Axton had met Presley during a Jacksonville appearance, and told him that she would write his first major hit. Durden had saved a newspaper story from the Miami Herald, which described a lonely man's suicide note containing the words "I walk a lonely street," and she began working it into the lyrics for a new song. Durden attempted to sing the vocal for a demonstration recording (a method by which songwriters record songs that might be considered by major artists and their producers), but Axton found the result not sufficiently menacing. The songwriting duo recruited country artist Glenn Reeves to record the song, promising him a songwriting credit for his efforts. Reeves declined the credit, believing the song to be "extremely silly." He did, however, record the song, performing a credible impersonation of the young Presley. Axton and Durden ended up sharing a credit with Presley, ensuring him enough money from future royalties to move his parents to Florida. "I played that song for Elvis, and he looks at me and he says, 'Hot dog, Mae!,'" Axton recalled in an interview quoted by writer Elaine Woo in the Los Angeles Times. "I had to play it for him 10 times. I knew Elvis until he was gone, and I never did hear him say, 'Hot dog!' ever again."
The first song Presley recorded for RCA in its Nashville studio on January 10, 1956, was a cover of Ray Charles's "I Got a Woman." The second song he recorded that day was "Heartbreak Hotel." The song was recorded in seven takes and sent to RCA executives in New York. Donald Clarke, quoted on the Rockabilly website, recalled that"the sound quality of that first session was not good, and 'Heartbreak Hotel' is the worst of them all. Chet Atkins played rhythm guitar and Floyd Cramer was added on piano, together with an unnecessary vocal trio led by Gordon Stoker, lead singer of the Jordanaires. Scotty Moore's guitar sounds exceptionally, irritatingly tinny, Cramer is too prominent and the whole track sounds like it was made underwater in a breadbox. It was a disgraceful song for 1956 but a good song for Presley."
RCA executives were not pleased with the finished product. Their initial desire was to return Presley to the studio to re-record the song to sound more like the Sun Records' recordings. But the seventh take won out, and was released less than six weeks later. It jumped to number one on the Billboard pop chart for eight weeks, number one for 17 weeks on the magazine's country chart, and became a number three hit on the magazine's rhythm-and-blues chart. When approached by publishing company Hill and Range for the rights, Axton held firm to a promise to publish the song with the small publishing company Tree Publishing, which held onto the song rights until 1989. "Heart-break Hotel" made the firm millions of dollars.
In addition to "Heartbreak Hotel," Axton wrote "Honey Bop," recorded by Wanda Jackson; "I Won't be Rockin' Tonight," recorded by Jean Chapel; "Falling in Love," recorded by Warner Mack; and "Rock-a-Boogie-Lou," recorded by Glenn Reeves. She was also the mother of country singer, songwriter, and actor Hoyt Axton, who wrote the Steppenwolf classic "The Pusher" and the Three Dog Night hit singles "Joy to the World" and "I've Never Been to Spain." The latter song was also recorded by Presley. Axton's grandson, Mark, also embarked on a songwriting and recording career.
For the Record . . .
Born on September 14, 1914, in Bardwell, TX; died on April 9, 1997, in Nashville, TN; married John T. Axton (a high school teacher and coach); children: son, Hoyt (singer, songwriter, and actor; died 1999); grandson, Mark Axton (singer, songwriter). Education: Attended Oklahoma University, studied Journalism.
Met Colonel Tom Parker, 1953; taped radio interview with Elvis Presley, 1955; wrote "Heartbreak Hotel" with Tommy Durden, 1956; wrote additional hits for Wanda Jackson, Jean Chapel, Warner Mack, and Glenn Reeves, 1950s-1960s.
"Heartbreak Hotel," Elvis Presley, 1956.
"Honey Bop," Wanda Jackson.
"I Won't Be Rockin' Tonight," Jean Chapel.
"Falling in Love," Warner Mack.
"Rock-a-Boogie-Lou," Glenn Reeves.
Humphries, Patrick, Elvis—The No. 1 Hits: The Secret History of the Classics, Ebury Press, 2002.
Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1997; October 22, 1999.
"Mae Boren Axton," Rockabilly Website, http://www.rockabilly.nl/references/messages/mae_boren_axton.htm (December 28, 2004).
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