Carleton Professor Solves 60-year-old Mystery Behind Elvis Presley’s first No. 1 hit — Heartbreak Hotel

Carleton University journalism professor Randy Boswell has published research in Rolling Stone magazine, the New York-based “bible of rock & roll,” revealing the mysterious individual who inspired Elvis Presley’s massive 1956 hit Heartbreak Hotel.

It’s the song that catapulted Elvis from regional popularity in the U.S. South to international stardom, helped ignite the rock & roll revolution and famously inspired a host of future rock superstars — John Lennon and Paul McCartney among them — to pursue music careers.

“The story behind the song’s genesis is legend, repeated thousands of times in newspapers, magazines, books, blogs and documentaries,” says Boswell. “Florida songwriters Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton always claimed that the creative spark was a 1955 Miami Herald article about an unidentified man’s suicide and the one-line note he’d left behind: ‘I walk a lonely street.’ That spawned ‘down at the end of Lonely Street,’ the signature lyric and idea behind Heartbreak Hotel.”

But the supposed suicide victim has never been identified, the purported Herald article never found. This “missing link” in the evolution of popular music has been described as one of the great mysteries in rock & roll history.

Boswell, who conducts research using historical newspaper databases, probed the digital archives of the southern U.S. press from the summer and fall of 1955, when Durden and Axton are known to have written the song. There, he discovered the story of Alvin Krolik, an aspiring artist and author from Chicago who died not by suicide in Miami, but when he was shot to death in August 1955 while attempting to rob a liquor store in Texas.

Crucially, though, the words Krolik had once used to describe his own life — “this is the story of a person who walked a lonely street” — were captured by a reporter covering the Texas shooting. The evocative phrase symbolizing Krolik’s life and death — “walked a lonely street” — appeared in news stories and headlines across the U.S. southeast, and must have reached Durden and Axton in northern Florida just before they wrote Heartbreak Hotel in September 1955.

Peter Guralnick, the acknowledged dean of rock & roll historians and author of 1994’s Last Train to Memphis — the most widely acclaimed Elvis Presley biography — said Boswell has “uncovered the truth at last. There’s no question in my mind that this is the real thing.”

Remarkably, Krolik’s downward spiral into a life of crime followed his own heartbreak over his failed marriage to Agnes Sampson, a Chicago nightclub musician.

“In the end, the real-life story of Alvin Krolik has more misery and tragedy even than the gloomy scene Elvis painted in Heartbreak Hotel,” said Boswell. “Krolik truly is the broken-hearted lover behind the song that shook the world.”

The discovery, Boswell notes, underscores the richness of digitized historical newspapers as a research resource. He previously tapped 19th-century Canadian newspapers to rediscover the long-lost location of Ottawa’s most important archaeological site, a 5,000-year-old burial ground that once existed directly across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill. That research, co-authored with Canadian Museum of History archaeologist Jean-Luc Pilon, was recently published in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology.

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Carleton University
613-520-2600, ext. 8718

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