Born Thomas Russell Durden on December 15, 1919, in Morgan County, GA; died on October 17, 1999, in Houghton Lake, MI. Addresses: Contact--Mary Durden-Kenney, 2162 High Rd., Roscommon, MI 48653, phone: (989) 275-8595.

Although he would primarily be remembered as the man who helped write "Heartbreak Hotel" for Elvis Presley, Tommy Durden had a long and distinguished career. A fine musician, he played steel guitar for Tex Ritter and Johnny Cash, and was a good singer. Durden also wrote a number of other songs during his 40-plus year career, including "The Ragged Edge," "Honey Bop," "I Might Have Known," "Davy Jones," and "Cobwebs of Your Mind." Following Presley's death in 1977, Durden wrote the tribute "Elvis" and worked for a number of years as a solo artist, recording two albums that included many of the songs he had written.

Thomas Russell Durden was born on December 15, 1919, in Morgan County, Georgia, the youngest of seven children. His father was a cotton sharecropper, and he grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, where he learned to play Hawaiian slide guitar. Over time, he transferred this skill to the steel guitar and joined the Westernaires, a group that later played backup for Tex Ritter. In the mid-1950s Durden was living in Gainesville, Florida, and playing steel guitar for Smilin' Jack Herring and his Swing Billys. The band included Pee Wee Jenkins, Bob Chisolm, Herring, and steel guitarist Durden, and they worked as a country band, traveling from one dance hall to another in North Florida. It was during this time that Durden would write the lyrics to his most famous song, "Heartbreak Hotel," and in one story that survives, the Swing Billys were the first group to play the then-unknown song. The group, however, didn't like the song because it was a rock-n-roll number, and teased Durden about it. Durden, however, would have the last laugh.

The idea for "Heartbreak Hotel" came to him after reading an article in the Miami Herald. He had glanced at the front page before turning to the racing section, and saw a story about a man who had destroyed all of his identity papers and committed suicide. The well-dressed man had left behind a note reading, "I walk a lonely street." Durden thought the story had the potential to become a great song, so he drove over to see his songwriter friend Mae Axton (the mother of Hoyt Atxon). Axton had met Elvis Presley when he had performed in Jacksonville and had promised to write him his first million-seller.

Axton liked the song idea, so Durden sat down at the piano and started to improvise. Axton, thinking of the heartbreak of the man's family, suggested that there should be a "heartbreak hotel" at the end of the "lonely street." While writing the song, a third friend, Glen Reeves, dropped by, and Axton asked if he'd like to help with the composition. Reeves declined, saying that the title was silly. Reeves left to run errands, returning "an hour later to find the song completed and recorded by Durden on Axton's tape recorder," according to Albert Goldman in Elvis. Axton then asked Reeves, who was also known for his ability to impersonate Presley, to sing the song into the tape machine. If it was in a style that Presley could relate to, she believed, he would be more likely to consider it. Reeves recorded the song, and although he was offered one-third writing credit for his help, he once again refused. Durden would later note of Reeves's involvement, "I was convinced when I heard the record that Elvis was even breathing in the same places that Glen did on the dub."

Axton approached Presley with the song at the Nashville DJ (disc jockey) convention and he liked it so much that he asked her to play it several times until he had it memorized. Axton and Durden offered Presley one-third of the writing credit to sing the song, and in 1956 "Heartbreak Hotel" became his first single for RCA and his first number-one hit. "It's ironic," Goldman wrote, "that this now-legendary composition should have been offered to him by a couple of obscure writers who had never set foot inside the Brill Building." The song, however, caught on slowly. When Presley first performed what would become one of the most famous songs in rock history, an orchestra, complete with a trumpet solo, accompanied him. The studio version, however, quickly shot to number one. "Presley never recorded anything else remotely like it," wrote Michael Gray in the London Guardian. "Nothing so spooky, moody, jazz tinged or weird." The song was also one of the few Presley recorded at the time that had not been written by professionals.

While Durden continued to have a successful, if low-key, career, interviewers inevitably wanted to know about the role he had played in penning "Heartbreak Hotel." "He wrote more songs," noted Bruce Eder in All Music Guide, "but never anything ... 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." Durden, however, had been surprised by the song's success, and later told the Chicago Sun-Times, "Evidently, it is a better song than I thought it was when I wrote it." When asked why he was never able to repeat the task of writing a number-one song, Durden was circumspect. "I have given it a lot of thought. I have come to the conclusion that the good Lord only allows one 'Heartbreak Hotel' to a customer."

Durden recorded two albums later in his career, Moods, which included his own version of "Heartbreak Hotel," and I Believe, which included religious songs. Durden retired from public appearances in the mid-to-late 1990s, and was inducted into the Michigan Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. The Michigan Magazine Museum houses a number of artifacts central to his career, including his trademark pink tuxedo and a copy of the notes he and Axton made when writing "Heartbreak Hotel." Durden died at home on October 17, 1999, in Houghton Lake, Michigan.

by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr

Tommy Durden's Career

Performed with Smilin' Jack Herring and his Swing Billys, 1950s; wrote "Heartbreak Hotel," 1956; played steel guitar for Tex Ritter and Johnny Cash; worked as solo artist, recording two albums.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 13 years ago

Uncle Tom was my mothers uncle, her parents were Ralph Wiley and Carrie D. Durden. I had the pleasure of visiting with Uncle Tom and Aunt Babe when they came for a visit at my moms house in the 90's. What a wonderful time we had with all the stories he told. How I wish I would have took notes. It was always great growing up with my grandmother and her telling us all the stories of what a great and famous man he was. She respected him very much and always spoke so highly of him. It is an honor to have him as part of my heritage and legacy for my children and grandchildren.

almost 14 years ago

Tommy was my grandfather, Sam Durden's, brother. Grew up with seeing him with my grandaddy as well in Jax, Fl and later when we all moved to Spartanburg, SC. Tommy and Babe were great people and wonderful family. Hope Mary and teh rest of the family are well, it has been a long time since seeing them. He stands as an important part of music history.

over 14 years ago

I live on Durden Road in Morgan County Georgia, which is where Tommy is said to have been born. I would love to have more information on where in Morgan Co. he lived until moving to Fla. I am researching history in our area of the county and know that the road is named after the plantation owning family, Durdin. I always assumed the road's name was misspelled by some county employee, but now see this is how he spells his last name.

over 14 years ago

I'd like to talk to Wanda Davis and "Jeff" about the song for a forthcoming book. Your information could be crucial. Robin

over 14 years ago

I would be inderested in interviewing Ms. (or Mrs. or Miss) Wanda Davis and listening to what "Jeff" for a forthcoming book on songwriting, using Elvis as a case study in the difference between "making blues" {as it used to be called} and "traditional" popular and country songwriting. I am anxious to hear more about what Ms. Davis and "Jeff" has to say because it could be crucial to music history. There have been numerous conflicting stories about the writing of Heartbreak Hotel over the years And, yes, Jeff, "Heartbreak Hotel" has legitimate blues roots: check out Roy Brown's "Hard Luck Blues" and listen to the piano way in the background, much less the storyline of a luckless, hopeless man walking the sidewalk until it ends at his mother's grave, where he says he may "lay down and die." Earlier, he says he can only get on his knees and "pray" since his situation is so dire The original lyric in "Heartbreak Hotel" in the second verse is "pray to die," neatly summarizing Brown's blues, and if Ms. Davis is correct, synthesizing it with that hotel! Any kind of documentation would be appreciated, or just let's talk. Does anyone know where one might find the original Miami Hearald citation or story? In Durden's '82 interview, I do not think he mentions it. He simply said he wanted to get his song published and maybe get a hit on it. "Get it out there" is, I believe, how he put it, so says he gave Axton credit for a song he had been singing on the radio for YEARS. He seems believable, and seems to have no connection with Col. Tom Parker {as did Axton, of course}. He had no reason to confabulate his 1982 comments. I believe him. Later comments were printed after he passed away. I am looking for the old Durden web sites, but they seem gone!

almost 15 years ago

I met Tommy when I was at Houston Lake with Gene Shelton. He and his wife were gracious and wonderful people. I cherish the time spent with them and how much I liked them.

about 15 years ago

Tommy Durden was my mother's uncle. I remember growing up in Jacksonville, Fla. and going to my grandfather's house. Uncle Tommy would be there and my grandfather and him would be playing and singing. I was very young "around 6", but I remember how sweet Uncle Tommy was and a good time was had by everyone. Cheryl Hackett

about 15 years ago

Tommy Durden was a gracious and kind fellow. The world is a better place for his time here.

about 15 years ago

I know that Elvis played with a band at the Hermitage Hotel Nashville,Tn some of the lyics in Heartbreak Hotel talk about a hotel deak clerk and a bell hop was this the Hermitage Hotel they were talking about. Wanda

over 16 years ago

Where did the tune to Heartbreak Hotel originally come from? I have noticed variations of it in other "old" blues songs? Thanks, -Jeff