Fri July 1, 2011
I Walk A Lonely Street: Mae Axton
By Rob Grayson
Memphis, TN – "I walk a lonely street." A five-word goodbye note addressed to no one. No ID on the victim, so the author of that efficient summation of a life of quiet desperation remains a mystery. Not unnoticed and not forgotten, though, as the song the five words inspired haunts us to this day.
Songwriter Tommy Durden spotted the article in the newspaper, the Miami Herald. He shared the sad story with his writing partner, Mae Axton. Axton decided the lonely street should have a gathering place for lost souls, and using words and meter in place of bricks and mortar built the Heartbreak Hotel.
(Axton, by the way, would also be the connection between Elvis Presley and the man who would help transform him from a singing truck driver to the undisputed world-wide king of rock-and-roll.)
Axton was born in Texas, studied journalism in Oklahoma (where, incidentally her son was born according to song), and taught school at Paxon High in Jacksonville, Florida. Axton also dabbled in radio, television, and handled public relations and concert promotion. That put her in touch with Colonel Tom Parker, who was running the show for country singer Hank Snow. At the request of Bob Neal, Elvis Presley's manager, Axton added the up-and-coming rockabilly singer from Memphis as the opening act for a Hank Snow show in May of 1955. At the concert, Elvis teased the 14,000 fans attending with "Girls, I'll see you backstage." The ensuing riot was the proverbial "hard act to follow" for Snow, and got the undivided attention of Col. Parker.
Following that show, Axton also made a claim which would rival the sports equivalents of Babe Ruth's called shot against the Cubs in the World Series, or Joe Namath's guarantee of a Super Bowl victory. Mae told Elvis she would write his first million-seller. After fleshing out Heartbreak Hotel, Axton and Durden had a local country singer, Glenn Reeves, record the demo. Axton presented the song to Elvis at the November 1955 Country Music Disc Jockeys convention in Nashville. She was quoted as saying Elvis' reaction to the song was, "Hot dog, Mae!"
Once he found his musical niche, Elvis was a legend in Memphis and across the South. Sun Records had already been basking in the glow of his first singles, but their limited distribution and promotion could only get him so far. By August of 1955, Elvis was Col. Parker's sole client, and the consummate showman put all efforts into securing a larger stage for his young ward. Passing up the interest shown by Columbia and Atlantic Records, Col. Parker used his existing contacts with RCA Records, who bought Presley's contract from Sun Records for $35,000, plus an additional $5,000 for back royalties.
So in January of 1956, two days after his 21st birthday, Elvis headed for RCA Records' studio in Nashville. Producer Steve Sholes would team the existing Presley band, Scotty Moore, Bill Black and D.J. Fontana with session pros Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, and singers Ben and Brock Speer and Gordon Stoker. The sessions were tense, with the home office expecting an immediate and impressive return on their investment. The assembled group warmed up on Ray Charles' I Got A Woman, then put down seven takes of Heartbreak Hotel. I Was the One and Money Honey rounded out the Nashville recordings. The suits in New York didn't like the tapes that came from the sessions. They felt that whatever lightning Sam Phillips caught at Sun in Memphis wasn't translating well in Nashville. After deciding against re-recording the song, take seven of Heartbreak Hotel became Elvis' first RCA single. After the January release, the record that worried the RCA executives had, by April, hit number one. It stayed there for eight weeks.
Mae Axton would write more than 200 songs recorded by artists such as Perry Como, Faron Young, Conway Twitty and Patsy Cline. Her son Hoyt wrote a few songs, too, like Joy To The World (the Jeremiah was a bullfrog one, not the Christmas one), and Never Been To Spain, which was covered by Elvis.