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Music

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

@SamWKemp

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’.

Albert King (1969)

Albert King is up there with BB King and Muddy Waters as one of the undisputed kings of blues, but it wasn’t an easy road to get there. After spending many years gigging around nightclubs and working numerous day jobs, King eventually recorded his first album, The Big Blues, in 1962. Seven years later, he released an album of Elvis covers that make the supposed king of rock ‘n’ roll look like a boy prince in a long gown.

Taken from that 1969 album, this rendition of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ sees Albert King inject Presley’s original track with a sauntering, laid-back cool. King’s more restrained approach allows him to lean into the blue spaces between notes, where his economic fretwork really shines through.

Suzi Quatro (1977)

A swift change of tone now. After playing with a variety of fledgling groups, Suzi Quatro flew to England In 1971 to embark on her solo career. Over the next five years or so she established herself as one of the best selling rock artists of the day, largely thanks to her hit ‘Can The Can’, which rose to the top of the charts in 1973, and sold two and half million copies worldwide.

The year this cover was released, Quatro was being drawn back to America. Indeed, it was in 1977 that she landed a part in the hit the US sitcom Happy Days, playing the aptly-named Leather Tuscadero opposite Henry Winkler and Ron Howard. This particular rendition of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ owes a lot to Albert King’s swing-laden blues version. But where King employs double basses and slick-guitar lines, Quatro uses synthesised bass pulses and heavy disruption, softened only by her glorious double-tracked vocal harmonies

John Cale (1981)

Surely one of the most astonishing cover versions of any song ever, John Cale’s rendition of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ retains the essence of Presley’s original while pushing it into strange and unfamiliar musical territory. It is Cale’s ability to make other people’s songs entirely his own that has made his covers real works of art in their own right. If the track below wasn’t proof enough of that fact, just remember that Jeff Buckley’s cover of ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen isn’t actually his – it’s Cale’s. All Buckley did was swap a piano for a guitar.

This rendition sees Cale explode ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and remould it to create a Frankensteinesque rendering of the original, complete with swirling electronic drones, churning basslines, and semi-melodic post-punk vocals.

The Cramps (1987)

Taking a leaf out of Cales book, The Cramps drag ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ kicking and screaming into the future. The Cramps made their name by melding aspects of classic rock ‘n’ roll with vaudevillian surrealism and punk-era bite. This cover is the perfect example of how successful they were in doing that.

Opening with that high-octane motoric drum beat, this cover seeks to recapture the trance-like power of early rock ‘n’ roll, submitting its listeners to a full minute of bass and drums before the first nihilistic thrashes of distorted guitar enter the mix. With this, Lux Interior steps into his Presley impersonation, invoking the cocaine-addled spirit of ‘The King’ to magnificent effect.

Paul McCartney & Bill Black’s bass (2005)

This last cover is something quite special. Taken from Paul McCartney’s Chaos And Creation at Abbey Road (2005), this rendition of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ sees the former Beatles member unveil the double bass that was used on the original track “This is the one, this is the bass,” McCartney begins. “Those Elvis fans among you will notice this dashing white trim that was on all the early album covers. It was played by Bill Black, Elvis’ bass player”.

As you would expect, Paul McCartney’s cover is just about as stripped back as you can get. Paul’s vocals slide along Presley’s original melody as the low thrum of Bill Black’s double bass does the rest. “One of the stories I heard about this bass,” Paul continues, “Was that in the early days Elvis, Scotty Moore, his guitarist, and Bill Black used to work as a trio, and they would be working locally in Tennesse – places like that. So, you have to imagine, it’s a beautiful starry night: Elvis driving, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, and this little baby strapped to the roof rack”.