Songs with Earlier Histories Than the Hit Version

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Heartbreak Hotel

Inspired by “Dreaming Blues” Roy Brown & His Mighty-Mighty Men (1950).
Recorded (as a demo) by Glenn Reeves (1955).
Hit version by Elvis Presley (US #1/C&W #1/UK #2 1956).

From the wiki: “‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was written in 1955 by Mae Boren Axton, a high school teacher with a background in musical promotion, and Jacksonville-based singer–songwriter Tommy Durden. The lyrics were based on a report in The Miami Herald about a man who had destroyed all his identity papers and jumped to his death from a hotel window, leaving a suicide note with the single line, ‘I walk a lonely street.’

“It has been alleged that the songwriting of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was not wholly original; that the rolling piano, and song’s basic chord structure, was copied note-for-note from Roy Brown’s 1950 R&B hit ‘Dreaming Blues’. Brown would also become known as the writer and original performer of B.B. King’s sole Top-40 hit, ‘The Thrill is Gone‘.

“Axton and Durden give different accounts of how their song was written: Durden’s account is that he had already written the song and performed it with his band the Swing Billys before he presented it to Axton; Axton’s account is that Durden had only penned a few lines of the song, and asked her to help him finish it.

“Durden recorded the initial demo of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, but another demo version was later re-recorded by Glenn Reeves who, Axton felt, had a better singing voice. Axton approached the popular singing duo The Wilburn Brothers, offering them the chance to record ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. However, Doyle and Teddy Wilburn declined, describing the song as ‘strange and almost morbid.’ Axton, however, agreed to a publishing deal with Buddy Killen, a young Nashville bass player, who had recently set up his own publishing company called Tree Publishing. With a publishing deal in place, Axton arranged through Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker to present the song to Presley at the annual Country Music Disc Jockey Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was to be named the most promising male country star of 1955.

“Axton played the Reeves demo to Presley in his room at the Andrew Jackson Hotel on November 10, 1955. Upon hearing the demo, Elvis exclaimed, ‘Hot dog, Mae, play that again!,’ and listened to it ten more times, memorizing the song. After signing with RCA on November 21, 1955, Presley accepted Axton’s offer of a third of the royalties if he made the song his first single on his new label. Presley performed the song for the first time in Swifton, Arkansas on December 9, 1955, and declared to the audience that it would be his first hit.”

Glenn Reeves, “Heartbreak Hotel” (demo) (1955):

Elvis Presley, “Heartbreak Hotel” (1956):

Elvis Presley, “Heartbreak Hotel” live TV performance The Milton Berle Show (1956):

Elvis Presely, “Heartbreak Hotel” take 6 (take 7 would be released as the single) (1955):

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