MAE BOREN AXTON (By Colin Kilgour)
Born, 14 September, 1914 Bardwell, TX
Mae's immediate and obvious claim to fame in the world of rock and roll, is as co-writer of 'Heartbreak Hotel', Elvis' first single on RCA, following his move from Sun Records
There was however a lot more to Mae, a canny character on the Florida scene
A multi-faceted lady, Mae played a crucial part in the game plan that launched the career of Elvis Presley
She hosted her own radio and TV slots and in addition to journalism, wrote several hit songs during the 50s. Around the time Elvis was getting his start with Sam Phillips at Sun, Mae did some PR for Col. Parker. This involved radio, TV and newspaper work for Parker's package shows when they went through Florida
Mae says Bob Neal asked for her assistance to get Elvis onto a Parker tour. This would help Neal in his objective to convince Elvis that he had the necessary clout to represent him well
It was at this time that Mae taped her radio interview with Elvis (28 July, 1955 in Jacksonville) when she was instrumental in slipping Presley and his boys onto the show which Hank Snow was headlining
Some six months later the Presley classic 'Heartbreak Hotel' written by Mae, Tommy Durden and 'Elvis' was committed to eternal wax
It was the debut Elvis release on his new RCA label. And of course it was a massive hit which marked Presley's transition from a local southern sensation to a national phenomenon and it built on the foundation begun by Bill Haley's 'Rock Around the Clock' to establish rock and roll as a musical force that wasn't going to go away
Elvis, The King of Rock 'n' Roll had ascended to his throne
Mae had some 14 previous 'rock' numbers that had been on the charts and around 200 numbers recorded in all and she 'steered' Elvis towards Parker's management
Axton had written several songs before with Durden and it was he who pointed out an article regarding a suicide. The man destroyed all his I.D. and left a one-line note "I walk a lonely street". A discussion ensued, as did the question "Doesn't everyone have someone who cares?"
The pair decided to write a song around the tragedy and in a flash of creative inspiration, it was Mae's suggestion to locate a heartbreak hotel at the end of that lonely street
Glenn Reeves however, who often wrote with Mae and Tommy appeared on the scene and soon declared the new title "the silliest I ever heard". He declined to help out on the song and went to do some errands
Reeves did later demo the song after Durden's own attempt was judged by Axton as too sweet and gentle - she wanted some 'edge'
Still Reeves declined to accept a third credit because he hadn't changed his opinion that the song was 'extremely silly' and didn't want his name connected with it. Major howler time
Somehow, instead of what could have been Reeves, Elvis' name appeared as co-writer with the other two. This appears to have been pay-back by Mae for Elvis pushing for the song to get its eventual prominence. More specifically Mae says it was her gesture/promise made good to help Elvis fund a move to Florida for his parents
Therefore this is a variation on the later Parker machinations to have his Boy's name, share writers' credit on several songs
Jorgensen says Mae was in the studio in Nashville on10 January, 1956 when the song was laid down
Elvis had arranged a meeting with Axton in the city some time before and was immediately taken by the new song ........ Mae had made good her promise to write him a winner. Another of Mae's contacts was Steve Sholes at RCA, so serendipity really was in her corner back at that crossroads in recording history
When she met Elvis, Mae was a little over 40 and teaching English at High School in Jacksonville, where her husband was the football coach. Her brother David, later became a prominent U.S. Senator from Oklahoma
Arriving in Nashville, Mae met Minnie Pearl who introduced her to the influential Fred Rose. Axton quickly wrote a song for Rose's forthcoming Dub Dickerson session. She hooked up with Col. Parker in 1953 and claimed to be the only person to her knowledge, to get an apology out of him
He used his "The Colonel is the Boss" line on her and not liking the context, she angrily responded "You be the Boss, be the big wheel but don't ever ask me to do anything for you". This led to the Colonel apologising and despite this incident, maybe because of it, they then got along very well! She was energetic and resourceful and proved an excellent local PR woman
To add a little spice and controversy, here's some extracts from the writings of biographer Donald Clarke:
"The sound quality of that first session was not good, and 'Heartbreak Hotel' is the worst of them all. Chet Atkins played rhythm guitar and Floyd Cramer was added on piano, together with an entirely unnecessary vocal trio led by Gordon Stoker, lead singer of the Jordanaires. Scotty Moore's guitar sounds exceptionally, irritatingly tinny, Cramer is too prominent and the whole track sounds like it was made underwater in a breadbox. It was a disgraceful recording for 1956 but a good song for Presley
Despite its shortcomings, 'Heartbreak Hotel' reached all three Billboard charts in March. It was number one for eight weeks in the pop chart and for seventeen weeks in the country chart, and a number three R&B hit
Think of it: one of the biggest, most famous hits of all time, recorded in January and in the charts less than forty-five days later. And this was already well into the age of tape recording, overdubbing, reverberation and all the rest"
Jorgensen tells us that Sam Phillips pronounced the finished product "a morbid mess".
But Elvis clearly believed in it. The heavy overlay of echo and D.J.'s rim shots created a powerful, emotion-laden atmosphere of upbeat despair
On hearing the new sides, Steve Sholes' superiors in New York wanted him to turn around and head straight back to Nashville to re-record the tracks and this time to get a sound closer to that of the Sun label product
In the event, time was of the essence and the RCA 'brass' did relent and press ahead with the release, albeit with considerable misgivings. It proved of course to be a complete smash, taking only a matter of weeks to sell close on a million copies
Another point of interest is that (no doubt to the frustration of Sholes) Mae held firm against Hill and Range's approaches to secure the publishing of 'Hotel'. She had promised it to Buddy Killen at Tree Publishing and if you check your CD packaging, you'll see that's where it remains credited to this day
Some of Mae's other hit songs: Honey Bop - Wanda Jackson (the title cleverly reversing the old thing of Bunny Hop) I Won't Be Rockin' Tonight - Jean Chapel Falling in Love - Warner Mack Rock-a-Boogie-Lou Glenn Reeves and items recorded by artists as diverse as Perry Como and Ernest Tubb
Mae did continue to write songs through the 60s and 70s and also taught college and high school
In spite of overtures from Elvis, Mae never did supply him with another song. There were possibilities but as she felt she couldn't 'top' Hotel, she wouldn't settle for next best. Ironically, shortly before his death, a new Axton/Durden song 'It Takes A Little Time' might just have made it. Elvis planned it for his next session but fate decreed it would never take place
Mae reached a very creditable 82 years of age and all in all, had quite a life
It seems appropriate to give a nod to Mae's son Hoyt (born on March 25, 1938 in Oklahoma) weaving in a little more connected to Mae
Singer, songwriter, actor Hoyt became an actor with TV guest parts (McCloud, Bionic Woman), films followed incl. The Black Stallion '79, E.T. '83, Gremlins '84
Signed with his mother's CPI label '92, album Spin The Wheel '93. Elvis Presley recorded 'Never Been To Spain', thus recording songs by both mother and son
Prior to becoming a Nashville music industry legend, Mae was a school teacher, a mother of two sons and wife to their father, John T. Axton, also a teacher and high school athletics coach
Under his father's guidance, Hoyt became a sixty-minute football player at Robert E. Lee High in Jacksonville, Florida, playing both offence and defence. His athletic ability was such that he made All State and won a football scholarship to Oklahoma State University. Mae made sure that the inner-man was not neglected, though, making Hoyt take classical piano lessons until his preference for the guitar surfaced. Ironically, however, Hoyt credits his music career as much to John T. as he does to Mae: "He was a singer and he loved to sing, although never professionally, he had this wonderful baritone voice, and he sang all the time. So I learned to love singing from my father and to love songwriting from my mother..."
In 1963, the Kingston Trio had a near Top 20 hit on the US charts with Greenback Dollar, which Hoyt co-wrote with fellow folk singer Ken Ramsey. The song also made the Billboard charts on three different Kingston Trio albums during the sixties. However, the financial reward never came, and Hoyt made a mere $800.00 from the song. "After I got ripped off as a writer on 'Greenback Dollar', I didn't go into a blue funk and walk around crying that everyone's crooked," Hoyt says of the experience. "I've always been an optimist, and I'm going to stay that way until I die. I think I get that from my mother, who could go up to the devil himself and she'd say 'Hello, young man, you're a lovely shade of red, but you're a naughty boy'. With 'Greenback Dollar', I had a crooked publisher, and that was when I'd only been in the business a year, so I didn't know anything - I was just a kid with a guitar living in a car. How could I sue when the whole point of the song was how I didn't give a damn about a greenback dollar!!?"
Hoyt died aged 61, on 26 Oct. 1999 at his home in Montana, coincidentally just days after Tommy Durden (aged 79)
Other songs Hoyt wrote included "Joy To The World," "Della And The Dealer," "When The Morning Comes," and "Never Been To Spain" for Three Dog Night but later covered of course by Elvis
Axton's "The Pusher," was recorded by Steppenwolf and immortalised in the movie Easy Rider. He was survived by his wife, Deborah, and five children http://www.sixcats.com/axton/hoyt2.htm
And it's nice that Mae's grandson, Mark Axton, Hoyt's son, has released a CD full of songs "What's in a Name?", all self-composed
Aside from where credited within the text, several lines of this article taken from Peter Guralnick's 'Last Train to Memphis' and a larger proportion from Stuart Colman's Radio London interview from summer 1980, as printed in the August 2003 issue of the highly recommended magazine 'Now Dig This'. My thanks to NDT Editorissimo Trevor Cajiao, for permission to use that info.
Go see www.nowdigthis.co.uk
In spite of the best attempts by writers in these biographies, to establish even most of the true facts of days long gone by, this is not always the easiest of tasks. Since this piece was published, it has come to the writer's attention that others question 1) whether Mae did in fact host her own TV program and more pertinent to the piece, 2) whether she really had any input into the actual *writing* of "Heartbreak Hotel".
Colin Kilgour: Sept. 2003
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