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Tommy Durden

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Steel guitarist Tommy Durden played in the backup bands of Johnny Cash and Tex Ritter, among other country music stars, but the chances are that most listeners never really recognized his playing on that instrument, good as he was. Rather, Durden achieved a lasting place in the early rock & roll record books for co-authoring "Heartbreak Hotel," Elvis Presley's first RCA-Victor release and his first single to chart nationally. Durden was born in Georgia but raised in Florida, and it was while playing with a band in Jacksonville that he saw a newspaper story about a man who'd committed suicide, leaving behind a note saying, "I walk a lonely street." Durden was interested in the incident and liked the phrase, and joined his lyrics to music by Mae Boren Axton of Nashville -- the result was "Heartbreak Hotel." Sam Philips, who had previously released Presley's records, hated "Heartbreak Hotel," and it wasn't clear to anyone present at the January 1956 session where it was recorded that the song would succeed. It didn't sound like anything Presley had recorded previously (and wasn't like any record he would subsequently cut), and it didn't begin to break out until the singer performed it on the Dorsey Brothers' television program a few weeks after the single's release. It went on to become the biggest-selling record of 1956, impossible to ignore even on the distinctly non-rock & roll-oriented music showcase Your Hit Parade, where "Heartbreak Hotel" received a kind of big-band pop interpretation. It subsequently appeared on numerous hits compilations and best-of albums, well into the CD era. In a financial move typical of the period, Presley's manager, Tom Parker, managed to get the singer's name added to "Heartbreak Hotel's" songwriting credits, ensuring that Presley (and, by extension, Parker) would share in the revenue from the song itself. Durden later moved to Houghton Lake, Michigan, and continued to perform for many years in the Cash and Ritter bands. He wrote more songs, but never followed up "Heartbreak Hotel" with anything even remotely as successful, but the one hit gave him a degree of financial security stretching out for more than 40 years, paying the rent a good deal of the time. ~ Bruce Eder

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