Tommy Durden was given the nickname 'Singing Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia' in
a 1959 article, shortly after he had done his first recordings for the D record label.
It noted that he was from Macon, Georgia. It also told us that he was known for his
'deep throated vocalizing'.
In 1948, Billboard magazine mentions he was working with a group that was backing
Bob Steele that was touring Texas at the time starting in Houston, then visiting
Galveston, Austin, Waco, Dallas and San Antonio. The group included Jack O'Shea,
Boots Gilbert, doing comedy and base (we surmising Boots later married Tommy - see below);
Tommy Durden, lead singer and steel guitar; Dotty Gilbert, rhythm guitar and Vic Cardis, violin.
His musical career took him to venues across the nation including:
- The Paradise Beach Hotel - Pensacola, FL
- The Sarasota Terrace Hotel - Sarasota, FL
- The Rose Room - Newark, NJ
- Atlantis Club - New York, NY
- Kovakos Club - Washington, DC
- The Bamboo Room - Galveston, TX
By 1959, Tommy was working a gig at the Northview Hotel In Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan.
Tommy gained recognition as a songwriter. He penned Elvis Presley's first RCA Victor
single, "Heartbreak Hotel" with Mae Boren Axton around 1955. Elvis was also
given co-writer credit.
At the time Tommy started writing "Heartbreak Hotel", he was a steel guitarist with
Smiling Jack Herring and his Swing Billies. He was doing some songwriting with Glen Reeves. He recalled reading about a suicide in the Miami
Herald newspaper in 1955 - of a well-dressed man who destroyed his identity papers and simply
left a note stating, "I walk a lonely street."
Tommy had a friend who was a local teacher and part-time promoter, Mae Boren Axton. He told
her about his idea. Mae was the one who suggested putting a Hearbreak Hotel at the end of that
lonely street. They wrote the song in an hour and a half. Mae had seen Elvis in a concert
in May 1955 and Elvis indicated he was looking for songs. After Mae and Tommy had wrote the song,
they had Glen Reeves do a demo recording, asking him sing it like Elvis might, even offering
to give Glen songwriter credit, but Glen said he would do it for nothing. Mae met up with
Elvis at a radio convention in Nasvhille in November 1955. They played the song for Elvis, who
immediately loved it. In fact, he had Mae play it for him ten times and by then Elvis had the lyrics
down. They offered to give Elvis
one-third of the writer's credits if he would record it as a single. Elvis loved the tune
and by April 1956 the record was number one across the land.
It may have been a case of circumstances coming together to create a classic that wasn't
to be repeated. Elvis did not record anything else similar to this type of recording, a bit
moody, a bit jazzy. Tommy wrote more tunes, but never had a hit like "Heartbreak Hotel" again.
His obituary in 1999 notes that if Tommy hadn't picked up the newspaper that one morning in Miami,
Elvis would have recorded an old country tune called "Pins And Needles (In My Heart)".
For a time he worked as the steel guitarist in the band that backed Tex Ritter. Also in the
band was Boots Durden.
It appears he settled on a life in Michigan. He was inducted into the Michigan
Country Music Hall of Fame.
Some of the tunes he wrote were:
- Crossroads (1956)
- Wasted Time, Wasted Tears - w/Mae Boren Axton (1955)
- Heartbreak Hotel - w/Mae Boren Axton and Elvis Presley (1956)
- The Ragged Edge
- Honey Bop - w/Mae Boren Axton and Glen Reeves
- Song Of The Astronauts - w/Mae Boren Axton
- Cobwebs Of Your Mind
The tune "Honey Bop" was co-written with Mae Boren Axton and Glen Reeves and was recorded
by Wanda Jackson in 1960.
He later became the steel guitar player backing Johnny Tillotson.
BMI saluted Tommy and other writers for having the top country hits in 1956.
BMI again saluted the songwriters of the 88 BMI country songs most performed between
April 1, 1979 to March 31, 1980; the list included Tommy.
In 1977, Tommy recorded a tribute to Elvis after the death of Elvis, simply titled "Elvis", which
was done to the tune of "Love Me Tender".
He died in Bay City, Michigan in October 1999, survived by his daughter.
Credits & Sources
- Country Song Roundup; No. 41; November 1955; American Folk Publications, Inc.;
- Country Song Roundup; No. 44; June 1956; American Folk Publications, Inc.;
- Cowboy Songs; Issue No. 44; January 1956; American Folk Publications, Inc.;
- The Billboard; May 1, 1948; Billboard; Cincinnati, OH
- The Billboard; November 10, 1956; Billboard; Cincinnati, OH
- The Billboard; November 1, 1980; Billboard; Cincinnati, OH
- The Billboard; December 7, 1958; Billboard; Cincinnati, OH
- The Guardian; Obituary; October 28, 1999; UK
- The Independent; Obituary; November 3, 1999; UK