Tuesday, June 7, 2011

June 7: Elvis Presley, "Heartbreak Hotel"

Artist: Elvis Presley
Song: "Heartbreak Hotel"
Album: Heartbreak Hotel (single)
Year: 1956

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Though there are many artists that helped to shape music into its current state, and there are also scores of performers whose names command the utmost respect, one can easily argue that Elvis Presley is still able to exist within a category all his own.  While he may not have had "the most" impact on music, there is little question that he ranks among the most important performers in history, and it was the music he created, as well as the way in which he presented himself that has enabled him to have as many fervent fans today as he did more than half a century ago.  His name alone brings with it a number of images and assumptions, and while his public persona may have overshadowed his career in some ways, the proof of what an extraordinary talent he was lives on within his massive catalog of truly timeless recordings.  So many of the songs of Elvis Presley have become so deeply ingrained into the American mindset that it is almost impossible to single out just one as his “finest” work, as one can easily write pages on scores of his singles and their impact on society.  However, there are a select few songs which for one reason or another rise above the rest, and due to its commercial success, the way in which it perfectly blended together so many genres, as well as its lasting place in music history, there is perhaps no better a representation of Elvis Presley than his monumental 1956 single, “Heartbreak Hotel.”

On a number of levels, “Heartbreak Hotel” is sheer musical perfection, and it is the uniquely dark swing that kicks in at the top of the song that instantly sets it far apart from its peers.  There is almost a sense of danger coming forth on the bassline from Bill Black, and it is within this aspect of the song where one can hear the fusion of blues and jazz.  The way in which Black slowly descends the musical scale gives “Heartbreak Hotel” a slink and swagger that almost every other artist in its wake would attempt to replicate, yet none came close to the perfection found here.  Drummer DJ Fontana matches this mood in the finest way possible, and it is the way in which he is able to guide the band through these more relaxed parts, but never lose the sharp punctuation that makes “Heartbreak Hotel” so unique.  Adding to the fantastic sound, pianist Floyd Cramer offers a brilliant musical sting, and it is also within his playing where one can detect an older, almost country-style mood, and one can picture his playing taking place in an “old West” saloon.  Yet there is no arguing that the most stunning performance on all of “Heartbreak Hotel” comes from guitarist Scotty Moore, and in many ways, it was his playing here that set the stage for what is now seen as the “obligatory” guitar solo on almost every rock song.  Though from a modern perspective it may seem a bit mellow, the way in which Moore’s guitar rings across the track is one of the earliest and most important moments in the transition to rock and roll.

However, on any song that bears the name of Elvis Presley, there is little arguing that it is the voice and presence of “The King” that makes the song the iconic moment that it remains to this day.  “Heartbreak Hotel” is certainly no exception, and throughout the song, listeners are treated to Presley’s entire vocal range, and a fantastic document of just “why” the world fell in love with his voice.  Whether he is working in the mid-ranges, to which he brings a power and presence that would re-define what it meant to be a pop star, or sliding down to the deepest area of his register, Presley is in top form throughout "Heartbreak Hotel."  It is the way in which he emphasizes certain moments on the track that are so unforgettable, as he seems to bring his own rhythm to the song that works in harmony with that being set forth by the rhythm section.  The swagger that comes through in his vocal performance is just as captivating today as it was when the song was first released, and it is much the reason that no cover version has been able to even come close to the original.  Furthermore, it is the way in which "Heartbreak Hotel" presents its uniquely sorrowful tale, and one can make a solid argument that the lyrics are as much of a transition between blues and rock as the music over which they are sung.  It is the fact that the words have become almost as iconic as Presley's voice that solidify the songs' place in music history, and "Heartbreak Hotel" is truly a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

While one cannot overlook just how brilliant a performance comes forth from every player on "Heartbreak Hotel," in retrospect, one must also give ample credit to what a historically significant space the song also occupies.  First and foremost, "Heartbreak Hotel" marked Elvis Presley's first released on RCA Records, and it came out only one day before his now-iconic television debut on Stage Show.  Yet for a handful of rumored reasons, Presley was not allowed to perform the song that day, but one can easily argue that his appearance led to far greater sales.  In fact, "Heartbreak Hotel" would become Elvis Presley's first song to sell one million copies, and in turn became the best selling single of 1956.  "Heartbreak Hotel" also managed to top the charts for pop, country and r&b recordings, becoming only the second song in music history (the other being Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes") to do so.  As the decades passed, "Heartbreak Hotel" would become almost synonymous with the early years of rock and roll, and it is almost impossible to find any Elvis Presley compilation or historical document that does not prominently feature the song.  Whether it is due to the historical significance of the song or simple the sheer musical perfection that can be found within, there has never been another song that comes even remotely close to the overall presence of Elvis Presley's legendary 1956 single, "Heartbreak Hotel."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

what happened to the mp3 link for this one?