From Paul McCartney to Suzi Quatro: The six best covers of Elvis Presley song ‘Heartbreak Hotel’

The suicide note was made up of just six words: “I walk a lonely street”, but from the moment Tommy Durden read them, he couldn’t get them out of his mind. However bizarre it might sound, it would be these same words that would inspire one of the most successful songs of the 1950s, Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’

After reading the words in a newspaper article about a grim suicide, Durden bought his freshly-minted lyrics inspired by the story to fellow musician Mae Boren Axton, a 40-year-old English teacher who split her time between teaching high school students about Walt Whitman and writing songs for local singers. This particular song was going to change not just her and Durden’s fortunes, but also those of Elvis Presley, who, at that point in his career had everything; the look, the charm, the voice. Everything, that is, except a hit song. “You need a million-seller and I’m going to write it for you,” she promised. And that’s what she did.

Elvis recorded ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on January 10th, 1956, just two days after his 21st birthday. Backed by a band that included guitarists Chet Atkins and Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, drummer D.J. Fontana, pianist Floyd Cramer, and the vocal group the Jordanaires, Presley sank into this slice of classic rock ‘n’ roll with ease, suffusing the track with a tenderness hitherto unseen by the good folks at Sun Studios. Indeed, this competitively down-beat number marked a change of gear for Presley, with former Sun Records label boss Sam Phillips declaring ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ a “morbid mess.” How wrong he turned out to be.

The day after Elvis released ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on January 27th, 1956, he performed the track live on Dorsey Brothers Stage Show, the first of six TV appearances that gave the track just the coverage it needed to make it a hit. By April 21st, it was number one. Since then, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ has been covered by all manner of artists from the world of country and blues, but also punk, electronica, glam, and pretty much every other style under the sun. Here, we’ve collected six of the very best of those covers.

The six best covers of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’:

Johnny Cash (1959)

OK, while it isn’t technically a cover, this “impersonation” of Elvis Presley doing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ by Johnny Cash is just too good to pass by. Recorded in the middle of a performance, this segment sees ‘the man in black’ ditch his formal attire and slicked-back hair for a look any hound dog would be proud of.

“Wherever we go, we usually do an impersonation and we had a request her tonight to do an impersonation of a rock ‘n’ roll singer,” Cash begins before buttoning his shirt, spreading his legs wide, and combing his hair down in front of his eyes. The wonderful thing about this clip is that seems to suggest both admiration and rivalry, with Cash’s mock-stroppiness revealing that perhaps Cash felt Presley was something of a diva. “This is an impersonation of a rock ‘n’ roll singer impersonating Elvis is what this really is,” Cash announces as he goes into his hyper-masc rendition of ‘Heartbreak hotel’.

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