Since My Baby Left Me
Courtesy: Richard Jinman - January 20, 2006
Fifty years ago, a young singer's lament to lost love irrevocably changed music.
To Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, it was a "morbid mess", a record that was slow,
depressing and badly recorded even by the lo-fi standards of 1956.
He had a point: Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel, the ultimate paean to loneliness and
lost love, is all of these things. The funereal blues is a radical departure from the
frenetic rockabilly songs he recorded for Sun and the dour lyric, inspired by a suicide note,
is the antithesis of chirpy teen anthems such as Rock Around the Clock. Even the quality
of the recording is below par. In his book The Rise and Fall of Popular Music, Donald
Clarke points out that Scotty Moore's guitar sounds "exceptionally, irritatingly tinny"
and Floyd Cramer's piano is "too prominent". "The whole track sounds as though
it was recorded underwater in a breadbox," Clarke complains.
But Presley believed in Heartbreak Hotel, predicting it would be a massive hit even before
he recorded it. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of its release on January 27, 1956, the
song still transcends its weaknesses, Presley's delivery sweeping everything in its
path. "Well, since my baby left me/ Well, I found a new place to dwell," moans the 21-year-old
superstar-in-waiting, his voice so drenched in reverb he appears to be performing
inside a stone crypt instead of RCA's studios in Nashville, Tennessee. "Well, it's down
at the end of Lonely Street/ That's Heartbreak Hotel."
The authors of this seminal song were Mae Boren Axton, a former schoolteacher turned
Nashville publicist and songwriter, and Tommy Durden, a steel guitar player.
They had already written a few songs together when Durden read a story in the Miami
Herald about a man who left a one-line suicide note that said, "I walk a lonely street."
Axton came up with the hotel metaphor. Presley also got a songwriting credit at the
insistence of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and the royalties were split three ways.
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