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Thomas Durden; Co-Wrote 'Heartbreak Hotel'

Obituaries

October 22, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forty-four years ago, a steel guitar player named Thomas Durden found himself riveted to a newspaper story about a man's suicide note, especially one line in which he called life "a lonely street."

With that haunting phrase churning in his head, Durden hurried over to see a concert promoter named Mae Axton, who was as moved as Durden was by the dead man's sorrowful last words. In 22 minutes they had knocked off some lyrics that began:

Since my baby left me

I've found a new place to dwell

Down at the end of Lonely Street

At Heartbreak Hotel

Axton played the song for Elvis Presley, who needed a hit. "Heartbreak Hotel" became his first gold record, commanding the top of the pop charts for two months in the spring of 1956.

For Durden, who died of cancer Sunday at age 79 at his home in Houghton Lake, Mich., the hit parade began and ended with that one heart-wrenching song.

Born in Morgan County, Ga., he was the youngest of seven children of a cotton sharecropper. He grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., where he learned to play the slide guitar.

By the mid-1950s Durden was playing guitar in Gainesville, Fla., for a group called Smiling Jack Herring and His Swing Billies. One day in 1955, that story in the Miami Herald caught his eye. It was about a well-dressed man who had destroyed his identification cards and papers and killed himself in a hotel. In his hand when he took his own life was a note with the line "I walk a lonely street."

"I went to Mae's house with that idea, that one line," Durden recalled in 1986 on the 30th anniversary of the song's recording.

Axton, who was a schoolteacher and concert publicist in Jacksonville, thought of having the "Lonely Street" lead to "Heartbreak Hotel." In less than half an hour, she and Durden had finished the song.

Axton called Presley, whom she knew from promoting one of his shows in Florida. She played the song for him in Nashville the next day.

"I played that song for Elvis, and he looks at me and he says, 'Hot dog, Mae!' " Axton, mother of singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton, told an interviewer in 1989. "I had to play it for him 10 times. I knew Elvis until he was gone, and I never did hear him say, 'Hot dog!' ever again."

Presley recorded the song Jan. 10, 1956. It quickly sold a million copies.

Many other artists later recorded "Heartbreak Hotel," including Willie Nelson and Leon Russell.

Durden shared the royalties from the song with Axton, who died in 1997, and Presley, who agreed to make it his first release on the RCA label in exchange for a share of the songwriting profits. Durden continued to write and perform music throughout his life, playing with Johnny Cash and Tex Ritter.

He recorded two albums, a collection of gospel songs called "I Believe" and "Tommy Durden Moods," which included his own rendition of the Presley classic he co-wrote.

He never got to know Presley well but cherished the memory of his first meeting with the young Elvis. "When Dad walked in the room, Elvis stood right up, reached out his hand and called him sir," said his daughter, Mary Durden Kenney. "Dad thought that was really something."

But Durden never wrote another hit, despite a lifetime of trying. That was always a disappointment to him, Kenney said.

So, to pay the bills, he kept his day job as a commercial dishwasher repairman for 20 years until retiring in the early 1980s.

"I have given it a lot of thought," Durden said several years ago, when asked why he never duplicated the massive popularity of the song that made Elvis famous around the nation. "I have come to the conclusion that the good Lord only allows one 'Heartbreak Hotel' to a customer."

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