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Oklahoma Memories

Mae Axton and Heartbreak Hotel

2012-01-28

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"...and I want to say to Elvis it's been very nice having you in the studio today. 'Well, thank you very much, Mae, and I'd like to personally thank you for really promoting my record, because you really have done a wonderful job, and I really do appreciate it because if you don't have people backing you, people pushing you, well you might as well quit.'"

That is Mae Boren Axton interviewing young Elvis Presley in 1955 in Jacksonville, Florida.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

Mae Boren was the sister of Oklahoma Congressman Lyle Boren and the aunt of former governor and U. S. Senator David Boren. After graduating from East Central State College in Ada with a teaching degree, Mae Boren met and married John Axton. John Axton was serving in the Navy and eventually was stationed in Jacksonville, Fla. Mae Axton was teaching high school English in Jacksonville and in her spare time writing songs and helping to promote local recording artists. Thus, in 1955, those two vocations came together. Mae had a program on a local radio station in Jacksonville and was promoting an appearance by country recording star Hank Snow. A young singer from Memphis was the opening act for that show. Mae interviewed that young, largely unknown, singer, Elvis Presley, on her radio show.

"...but I've seen you perform, and you're a terrific performer, and a lot of my listeners have seen you, and they've heard your records, and they think they're very wonderful. Of course, you really skyrocketed to fame on "That's All Right, Mama. "Wasn't that the one? 'Well, yes ma'am, that was the one that got me on my way and everything. '"

That interview in May 1955 led Mae to meeting Col. Tom Parker who had just signed on to manage Elvis. Parker hired Mae to help with publicity. At that point in her career Mae had already written songs for Perry Como and Ernest Tubb. Later that summer, Mae's co-writer Tommy Durden read a story in a newspaper about a man who had taken his life. There was no identification on the body, just a hand written note that read "I walk a lonely street. " Mae and Durden were struck by that line, and Mae came up with the idea of a heartbreak hotel at the end of that lonely street. Mae played the song for Parker then Elvis. Elvis loved it and began using it in his live shows. On January 10, 1956, Elvis recorded five sides at the RCA Nashville studio, including "Heartbreak Hotel. "

[clip of Elvis singing "Heartbreak Hotel"]

RCA label executives in New York thought the song was too somber, too serious; it wasn't like anything he had recorded at Sun Records, but on January 28, 1956, it was released, and two weeks later Elvis appeared on the Tommy Dorsey Show on CBS television.

"We have another song here, friends, that we hope you like. It's called "Heartbreak Hotel."

[clip of Elvis singing "Heartbreak Hotel"]

The song continued to be featured by Elvis through the remainder of his career. In 1968 on his comeback special...

[clip of Elvis singing "Heartbreak Hotel"]

Of the more than 200 songs Mae Boren Axton wrote, "Heartbreak Hotel," released on January 28, 1956, was by far the biggest hit. You can learn more about Oklahomans in the entertainment business by visiting the Oklahoma History Center, NE 23rdStreet just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.