Mae Boren Axton is referred to as the “Queen Mother of Nashville” and even has an award named after her. Yet she’s unknown to many, being a songwriter as opposed to one of the more visible stage stars that she penned hits for.
Axton is best known for her work on “Heartbreak Hotel,” famously performed by none other than Elvis Presley. She initially earned a journalism degree and worked as a teacher in Florida when she began writing music with two musicians, Glen Reeves and Tommy Durden. Durden had read a story in the Miami Herald about a hotel suicide and brought the concept to her. The victim in the story had left behind a brief suicide note that read, “I walk a lonely street,” before leaping out the window to his death. Axton was equally inspired by the story, and in just one hour the two turned out what would become the mega hit of “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Axton already knew of Elvis Presley from working a part-time secretary job for his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. She recognized his star quality, and felt that all he needed was a hit song to take things all the way. She was right. Presley quickly agreed to record the song after hearing the demo. He requested to be given a co-composer credit and receive one third of all the royalties. The two writers agreed to the deal and the song became his first to top the charts in the U.S. A significant reason that his career took off when it did.
The song landed at the top of Billboard’s Top 100 chart for seven weeks, Cashbox’s pop singles chart for six weeks, and the Country and Western charts for 17 weeks. The song was one of the top sellers of 1956 after landing in the top five of the Country and Western, pop, and Rhythm ‘n’ Blues charts-all at the same time. Talk about a crossover hit. Presley ended up performing the song for twenty years, stopping three months prior to his death.
The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1995, named one of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” by Rolling Stone in 2004, and that same year was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”
Despite the mega hit Presley never worked with her again. He did, however, work with her son Hoyt Axton when he recorded ‘Never Been To Spain.’ Axton continued to write for other singers and amassed around 200 tracks to her name. Other artists she wrote for included Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Wanda Jackson, and Hank Snow. Other notable artists included Mel Tillis, Reba McEntire, Willie Nelson, Eddy Arnold, Tanya Tucker, Johnny Tillotson, and Blake Shelton.
These days the Mae Boren Axton Award is handed out by the Academy of Country Music to honor individuals who have made a significant impact in the industry, just like her. Elvis Presley was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame back in 1986, but although eligible, Mae has not yet received the same honor.