Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mae Boren Axton

We are all here for a purpose, so say the swamis and mystics, even if we never manage to figure out what that is. Sometimes the purpose is huge and sometimes it's quite small and sometimes, somehow, it's both.

Consider the case of Mae Boren Axton, who was born in Texas and died in Tennessee but lived most of her life in Florida and thus garners coverage here. In the 1950s Mae was a real go-getter, juggling careers in music, writing, journalism, and broadcasting, plus she was a PR agent and media publicist. And all these things coalesced in 1955 to bring about what may have well have been her divine purpose: she introduced Elvis Presley to Colonel Tom Parker.

Whether that's a good thing or not is up for debate. But the Colonel's shady business tactics and flair for showmanship did indeed help to make Elvis what he was. The Colonel, at that time, ran country-music package tours that traveled around the nation, and whenever the tours came to Florida, Mae was his go-to PR person. The Colonel held her in such high regard that it's been said she's the only person he ever apologized to for one of his typical rude and pompous remarks. In addition to introducing Elvis to the Colonel, Mae was also instrumental in Elvis landing his RCA contract, as she was chummy with RCA's Steve Sholes and used her connections to push him. She interviewed Elvis on her radio show in Jacksonville in July 1955, and convinced the Colonel to give him a slot on a Hank Snow tour. As if all this wasn't enough, she wrote Elvis' first song on RCA - "Heartbreak Hotel".

She and her songwriting partner, Tommy Durden, were fascinated by a newspaper story about a man who committed suicide and his goodbye note said only "I walk a lonely street." Inspired by this, Mae penned a strange song about a hotel "at the end of Lonely Street" whose denizens are all depressed and suicidal, with the recurring line "you'll be so lonely you could die." A spooky song in its own right, it became even spookier when the RCA recording staff, clueless as to how Sam Phillips got the classic Sun Records reverb sound, ended up making the record sound like it was recorded in a mausoleum.

Elvis and Mae remained friends throughout the years (the photo at right shows her and some other woman visiting Elvis in Florida on the set of Follow That Dream) and he kept asking her to write him another song. She declined, fearing that nothing could ever top "Heartbreak Hotel", though she did write hit songs for other artists. Finally, in 1977, she presented Elvis with a song she'd written that she felt was good enough; something called "It Takes A Little Time", and Elvis had planned to record it on his next session.

And then he up and died, just like "Heartbreak Hotel" warned.

(Some might say Mae's other purpose in life was to bring us her son, Hoyt Axton, who became a successful musician himself. Hoyt wrote the hit song "Never Been To Spain" for Three Dog Night, and then it was subsequently covered by, yes, that's right, Elvis.)

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