The first record released by Elvis for RCA was, of course, “Heartbreak Hotel”, but that was not the first recording he made. That honor goes to “I Got a Woman” which was a cover of a record by Ray Charles from 1954 called “I’ve Got a Woman”. These were both recorded on January 10, 1956 and “Heartbreak Hotel” was released to the public on January 27. To record the song, RCA brought in some new people to augment the Blue Moon Boys that Elvis was used to playing with. They brought in Floyd Cramer on piano and Chet Atkins on guitar, both of whom would become stars in their own right. At Elvis’s request, they also brought in three background singers known as the Jordanaires. The Jordanaires would stay with Elvis through most of his career.
Elvis had met the Jordanaires a couple years earlier when he was recording for Sun. He liked them so much that he came backstage and told them if he ever got a big recording contract; he wanted them to sing for him. When he signed with RCA, he kept his word and asked them to come with him. The Jordanaires were mostly gospel singers whose name comes from Jordan Creek in Missouri. They are not named after the Jordan River as many people believe. The personnel of the Jordanaires changed somewhat over the years, but I believe the three that sang with Elvis on that first recording session were Gordon Stoker and Ben and Brook Speer. They were later joined by Hugh Jarrett and the Jordanaires were a quartet for the rest of their career.
Recording for RCA was a different experience than Sun. Elvis was used to moving around as he sang. He literally could not stand still. The engineers at RCA gave him one microphone and told him to stand in front of it and sing. Well, he would move to the side or swing the guitar around and the sound would fade in and out. They couldn’t get a good recording.
Finally, the engineers gave in and changed the microphones in the room by adding them in several places so that no matter where Elvis stood or played, the mike would pick it up. They used a hallway to get an echo effect in the song. It took several days and many recordings before they got a version that they felt they could sell. And then, a lot of people at RCA didn’t like it. They called it morbid and muddy.
But it was released. On the flip side was “I Was the One”. To promote the singer as well as the record, RCA arranged for Elvis to perform on television on CBS’s Stage Show which starred Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. The Dorsey’s were big band performers and I’m not sure the audience for them would be the same as the audience for Elvis, but it worked. At first, they wouldn’t let him sing “Heartbreak Hotel” convinced it was not a good song. But, after three appearances on the show the group convinced the show to let them play the song and that’s all it took. It literally exploded.
On March 3, 1956, it entered the Billboard Hot 100 and the next week on March 10, it was in the Top 40. It entered the country and western charts as well and within two months, it was number one on both charts. “Heartbreak Hotel” spent eight weeks at number one on the pop charts and 17 weeks at number one on the country charts.
(Excerpted from Legends of Rock & Roll – Elvis Presley)
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