“At a dinner in 1981, I met Tommy Durden, co-writer* of “Heartbreak Hotel”, his wife Babe, and his daughter Mary. During the dinner, Tommy regaled us with his version of the journey of “Heartbreak Hotel” from conception to hit record. At one point,, Tommy’s wife Babe seemed to have had enough of this ‘glossing over’ and exclaimed, “That’s not the way it happened! My Tommy has a trunk-load of songs at home that no one will listen to because that damn Colonel Parker blackballed him out of the business!”
Thirty odd years later I made the call. I spoke to Mary (Tommy’s daughter), she remembered me, but said I had better speak to her husband, Arthur, since she was in the beginning stages of progressive dementia. “What about this trunk-load of songs?”, I asked. In due course I received a box of musty reel to reel tapes of tunes from 1951-1984. The tapes were digitized by Creation Audio, and assessed by myself, Steve Weise (Creation) and Peter Johnson (nee APHC drummer and regional music producer). We understood that without the ‘blackballed’ angle, they were just a bunch of old songs. Good ones at that, but perhaps too much ‘of the period’ to be commercially viable in today’s market. (It should be mentioned, however, that many artists of note, as listed below, would take an interest in this, if only for the reason that they find the style fits them like a glove.)
This ‘blackballing’ has been confirmed by the rest of the family and by a one of Tommy’s close associates. There is much more to the story, of course. It is a fluid situation, unfolding more and more as time goes by and stones are unturned.
* Ostensibl y. Tommy Durden had been performing “Heartbreak Hotel” with Smilin' Jack Herring and his Swingbillys for six months prior to presenting it to Mae Axton (Colonel Parker’s press agent). It is debatable whether or not Mae contributed any real content to the song. What is more likely is that she made a few adjustments to ease her conscience, promoted herself to the position of 'gatekeeper', then talked Tommy out of a songwriting credit, pleading the case that she was Elvis Presley’s manager’s press agent, and that ‘half of nothing is nothing.’ Although Elvis Presley also received a songwriting credit (Colonel Parker insisted on this before he would let Elvis hear the song; Colonel Parker received 50% of a 360 degree deal with Elvis), he (Elvis) is quoted saying he contributed nothing to the writing of “Heartbreak Hotel (or any other song wherein he received a songwriting credit-why this is a felony in every other aspect of business except music is beyond me). This is how Tommy Durden ended up with only 17% ownership in “Heartbreak Hotel”,having given 83% away on the promise (and the hope) that he would get another audience with Presley for a follow-up.
Never happened. Behold the practice of 'blackballing'. Tommy finished his life as a bar musician and soft water delivery/repairman. Now THAT’S a STORY!
It should also be noted that a follow-up song, “It Takes a Little Love”, lay dormant under the thumb of the Colonel’s gatekeeper policy for a quarter century until a rift developed between Elvis and Parker in the early 70s. At this point, Elvis had contacted Tommy and let it be known he intended to record the song, but before it could become a reality, Colonel wormed his way back into Presley's life by telling him he had some real 'dirt' on his father, Vernon. Elvis died of heart failure on August 8th, 1977. Heartbreak Hotel, man…
Glenn Reeves demo recording of "Heartbreak Hotel"
Tommy was a 'steel man'. He played steel guitar with Johnny Cash before Johnny hit the big time.
Tommy and first wife 'Boots'
Tommy and 2nd wife Babe, at BMI celebration of the continued success of HH