(Originally appeared in Mutant Renegade Zine #13, Winter 2000)
Recently the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had an Elvis Presley exhibit and the world celebrated his birthday. All of this is well and good, but another event happened recently in which went unnoticed by the mass media and Elvis fans everywhere. This upsets me, and I almost take it personally. What went largely unnoticed was the passing away of Tommy Durden, the man who is in the Songwriting Hall of Fame for writing Elvis’ first hit, Heartbreak Hotel.
I met Tommy a couple of times when he visited my grandmother-in-law and her sisters during their annual summer get-togethers. Tommy was a big man who reminded me a lot of William S. Burroughs in his stature. He was a pleasant person who had an engaging personality. Tommy used to be married to one of the sisters, and even though their marriage didn’t work out they all remained great friends.
My wife and I would just sit around listening to their adventures as they traveled across the country playing in their bands. I learned about the all night cross-country drinking binges that they had with Tex Ritter. Or how they remember how excited Tex was when his son Johnny (actor John Ritter of Three’s Company fame) was born. I also got to hear the lowdown on folks, all of which will remain nameless. The tales would last late into the night.
However, the most fascinating tale concerned Tommy and his song Heartbreak Hotel.
Tommy had written the song and performed it many times. One of the big musical managers at the time was Colonel Tom Parker. Tommy wanted to get the song to Col. Parker in hopes that he could get it to a better known singer to perform. Tommy didn’t know Col. Parker outright, but he did know someone who knew him and that person was May Axton.
May told Tommy that she would give the song to Col. Parker, but that he had to give her part of the songwriting credit. Tommy just wanted to get the song out so he agreed. May gave the song to Col. Parker and he gave the song to Elvis. Elvis was impressed with the song and recorded it, and he too was given part of the songwriting credit.
Tommy said when he first heard Elvis’ rendition of Heartbreak Hotel, he thought it was the most god-awful thing that he had ever heard. However, when the royalty checks started rolling in, he said he rethought his stance and decided that it was the sweetest most beautiful song that he had ever heard in his life.
In some the stories about the writing of Heartbreak Hotel, May Axton likes to tell how her and Tommy sat down and wrote the song together. In other stories she left Tommy out altogether. I asked Tommy how he felt about this, and he said that as long as the royalty checks kept rolling in, he didn’t care who got the credit, he knew the truth.
I was saddened when Tommy missed the annual summer gathering due to an illness from which he never recovered. He took a turn for the worse and passed away near his home in Michigan this past fall. While I feel happy that I got the opportunity to meet this wonderful and interesting man, I also feel saddened that the music industry and Elvis fans didn’t even acknowledge his passing.
I feel very lucky to have meet this man and even luckier to posses a taped copy of his original recording of Heartbreak Hotel. I will surely miss him.