mae boren axton’s handwritten lyrics to “heartbreak hotel”

Es­ti­mated reading time is 7 minutes.

THE HAND­WRITTEN LYRICS to Heart­break Hotel by Mae Boren Axton from Oc­tober 1955 were up for sale re­cently. There are few songs in the his­tory of rock & roll that are more im­por­tant to the genre’s de­vel­op­ment as the world’s most pop­ular music during the post-war 20th cen­tury and none have a better origin story.

While doing the re­search on the first records that RCA Victor re­leased to pro­mote Elvis to radio sta­tions in 1955-1956, I came across a most in­ter­esting page. “Elvis Presley (Mae Boren Axton) ‘Heart­break Hotel’ Lyrics” of­fered the hand­written lyrics to Elvis Pres­ley’s first big pop hit.

Well, since my baby left me, I’ve found a new place to dwell. It’s down at the end of Lonely Street at Heart­break Hotel.

These lyrics along with a few notes and cor­rec­tions were pen­ciled on a single sheet of un­lined paper with three holes in the left side. On this sheet of paper, Boren Axton wrote the orig­inal lyrics for the song that would help de­fine the early Elvis Presley.

This piece of his­tory re­cently sur­faced and ap­par­ently has been of­fered for sale via auc­tion (per­haps sev­eral times). This brief ar­ticle by me is not about its mon­e­tary value—one site listed a min­imum bid of $200,000—but just an op­por­tu­nity for me to post a copy of Ax­ton’s lyrics for readers of A Touch Of Gold to see.

 

Mae Boren Axton: copy of 45 rpm single "Heartbreak Hotel" (RCA Victor 47-6420) by Elvis Presley from 1956.

De­spite the five reis­sues of his ear­lier Sun records being among RCA Vic­tor’s best-selling sin­gles, the record com­pany did not spring for the added ex­pense of in­cluding a custom pic­ture sleeve with Heart­break Hotel / I Was The One.

Mae Boren Axton’s lyrics

Here is the Item Overview/Description as pub­lished in the In­valu­able auc­tion (with one lengthy para­graph broken up into three below):

“Elvis Presley. Heart­break Hotel. Orig­inal Working Lyrics Hand­written by Mae Boren Axton. This won­derful piece of music his­tory is a sheet of hand­written orig­inal working lyrics for what would be the classic Elvis Presley hit song, Heart­break Hotel.

These lyrics were written by Mae Boren Axton, a high school teacher with a back­ground in mu­sical pro­mo­tion, and Tommy Durden, a Jack­sonville singer-songwriter. It is said by his­to­rians that Mae played a cru­cial part in the game plan that launched the ca­reer of Elvis Presley.

Al­though it’s al­ways crowded, you still can find some room for broken-hearted lovers to cry there in the gloom.

Mae first met Elvis in 1955 around the time he was get­ting his start with Sun Records (sic), and she was doing some PR for Colonel Parker via her TV and radio shows pro­moting his package shows when they would be in Florida. She was asked by Elvis’ man­ager at the time, Bob Neal, for her help in get­ting Elvis on a Parker tour to con­vince Elvis that Neal had the con­nec­tions to rep­re­sent him well.

Mae Axton taped a radio in­ter­view with Elvis in July 1955 in Jack­sonville and got Elvis onto the show which Hank Snow was head­lining. Heart­break Hotel was written in Oc­tober 1955 and pre­sented by Axton to Elvis Presley, who loved the song and even­tu­ally recorded it in Jan­uary 1956 for his new label, RCA Victor.

This was a piv­otal point in Elvis’ ca­reer as he had just moved to RCA and this would be his first single. The lyrics are hand­written in pencil and signed by Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden, and also have var­ious edits and corrections.”

To see the In­valu­able auc­tion, click here. When you get to the In­valu­able page, the es­ti­mated value reads “Passed.” I in­quired as to its meaning and the In­valu­able people responded:

“During a live auc­tion, the auc­tion house has sole dis­cre­tion to ac­cept bids from a va­riety of sources (floor, in­ternet, phone) as well as the op­tion to pass a lot during a sale. The house may do this for a number of rea­sons, such as the bid­ding not meeting a re­serve or the item being re­moved from the auction.”

 

Copy of handwritten lyrics and notes for "Heartbreak Hotel" by Mae Boren Axton from 1955.

Mae Boren Axton wrote the lyrics in pencil on a piece of un­lined, three-hole paper so it looks like a school project.

Down at the end of Lonely Street

Above are the lyrics as Mae wrote them; below are the lyrics as Elvis sang them on RCA Victor 6540:

Well, since my baby left me,
well, I’ve found a new place to dwell.
Well, it’s down at the end of Lonely Street
at Heart­break Hotel.
Where I’ll be—I’ll be so lonely, baby.
Well, I’m so lonely.
I’ll be so lonely, I could die.

Al­though it’s al­ways crowded,
well, you still can find some room
for broken-hearted lovers to cry there in the gloom.
And be so—they’ll be so lonely, baby.
They’ll be so lonely.
They’re so lonely, they could die.

Now, the bell­hop’s tears keep flowing
and the desk clerk’s dressed in black.
Well, they’ve been so long on Lonely Street,
they’ll never—they’ll never look back.
And they get so, they’ll be so lonely, baby
Well, they’re so lonely
Well, they’re so lonely, they could die.

Well, now, if your baby leaves you
and you got a tale to tell,
well, just take a walk down Lonely Street
to Heart­break Hotel.
Where you will be—you will be so lonely, baby.
Well, you will be lonely.
You’ll be so lonely, you could die.

Al­though it’s al­ways crowded
and you still can find some room
for broken-hearted lovers to cry there in the gloom.
And be so—they’ll be so lonely, baby.
Well, they’re so lonely.
They’ll be so lonely, they could die.

 

Mae Boren Axton: photo of Elvis Preslety holding his first gold record award for "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956.

On April 14, 1956, Elvis re­ceived his first gold record award from RCA Victor for sales of a mil­lion copies of Heart­break Hotel.

I walk a lonely street

Elvis and the guys had been per­forming Heart­break Hotel as part of their live show since Axton had given them the song in Oc­tober. When they en­tered RCA’s studio in Nashville on Jan­uary 10, they knew what they wanted. It took only a few tries and take 7 was dubbed the master.

The song was nothing like any of the tunes Presley had cut for Sam Phillips at Sun. Leg­en­darily, what caused a whole heap of anx­iety for Steve Sholes was the fact that the fin­ished recording not only didn’t sound like an Elvey Presley Sun record, it didn’t sound like any record anyone had heard before.

In hind­sight, we know he need not have wor­ried: Al­though it took the record longer to take off than hoped for, take off it did: Heart­break Hotel topped the Bill­board and Cash Box pop charts plus the in­di­vidual sur­veys for best sellers, jukebox play, and radio play along with top­ping sev­eral of the same charts in the country & western genre. 

While Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley & the Comets had been #1 on both the Bill­board and Cash Box pop charts for most of July and Au­gust 1955, it was a har­binger of things to come. The next record as­so­ci­ated with rock & roll; to top the pop charts was the Plat­ters’ The Great Pre­tender in Feb­ruary 1956.

Then came Heart­break Hotel, with which Elvis ef­fec­tively opened the flood­gates to the top of the charts for more rock & roll (and teen-related pop) in 1956: I Al­most Lost My Mind by Pat Boone and My Prayer by the Plat­ters fol­lowed by Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel. The next year, rock & roll dom­i­nated the #1 po­si­tion on the na­tional pop charts.

 

Mae Boren Axton: photo of Al Krolick, the apparent inspiration for the lyrics to "Heartbreak Hotel."

Who is this good-looking gent and what does he have to do with Mae Boren Axton or Heart­break Hotel or Elvis Presley? See “Solving the mys­tery” below.

Solving the mystery

In the bottom left corner of the lyric sheet for Heart­break Hotel is a note from Axton to her­self: “Idea – sui­cide note Tommy saw: ‘I walk a lonely street’.” This was part of the foun­da­tion for the origin story of the song—that some poor, lost soul had taken his own life and left be­hind a note with those words. But what if this story was apocryphal?

The good-looking gent in the pho­to­graph above is Al Krolik. If you want to know who he is and what he has to do with Heart­break Hotel and the leg­endary sui­cide note, read “Solving the Mys­tery of ‘Heart­break Hotel’.” Sub­ti­tled “The man who in­spired Elvis’ breakout hit has fi­nally been un­masked and the story is stranger than anyone could have imag­ined,” it was written by Randy Boswell for Rolling Stone (July 15, 2016). 

The ar­ticle tells a very dif­ferent story about the man who found him­self on Lonely Street than the one we have long ac­cepted as part of the Elvis Story. It led Elvis bi­og­ra­pher Peter Gu­ral­nick to state, “There’s no ques­tion in my mind that this is the real thing.” To read the Rolling Stone story, click here.

 

Mae Boren Axton: photo of Elvis Presley in his gold suit in 1957.

POST­SCRIP­TU­ALLY, RCA Victor and the Elvis Presley Es­tate fi­nally paid the nec­es­sary fees and Heart­break Hotel / I Was The One was cer­ti­fied as a double-sided hit by the RIAA for both a Gold Record Award and a Plat­inum Record Award on March 27, 1992. It was cer­ti­fied for a 2xMulti-Platinum Record Award on July 15, 1999.

 


 

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