Mining Elvis Presley's catalog: What was found and what was lost
“The Complete Elvis Presley Masters” is a marvel to behold, and a behemoth to explore. Over its 30 CDs are the astonishing array of music that the King of Rock 'n' Roll recorded over a quarter century -- 711 master tracks, more than triple what the Beatles issued during their career, plus more than 100 other outtakes, unreleased songs and live performances.
And even though 162 of those songs on the new box set charted during Presley’s lifetime, that leaves a monstrous amount far less known, a source of considerable pride and pleasure to Ernst Jorgensen, the Danish record exec and lifelong Elvis fan who’s been in charge of his catalog reissues for the last 20 years.
“When Elvis died in 1977, who thought we would ever find four demos recorded by him before he ever made a recording at Sun Records?” Jorgensen told me during an interview for a story that appeared Friday in Calendar. “That has to be the highlight of the rarities section. We found so many things simply by being around.”
Of course, the issue of what was found brings with it the question of what wasn’t. Jorgenson has spent two decades scouring the world for Presley recordings, and at this point doesn’t anticipate any major new discoveries.
“We don’t have our hands on everything,” he said. “In 1959, RCA Records destroyed about 20,000 tapes to save space in some warehouse building in Indianapolis. There were lots of Elvis Sun tapes and '50s records. These were not the masters, but the outtakes. On that, I have given up. I've known every vault keeper there was, I’ve known the paperwork… With the Internet and eBay, most people who have something worth any money have been out shaking it trying to sell it.”
Other than outtakes from the fabled Sun sessions magically appearing one day, Jorgensen’s Holy Grail acquisition would be recordings of Presley’s early live performances.
“What I’d appreciate,” he said with a laugh, “is for you to go back down through Texas and Louisiana and find me some more radio tapes of Elvis on ‘Louisiana Hayride.’ …For me, to hear early Elvis before he was famous, out there singing, is the ultimate. [Chuck Berry’s] ‘Maybellene’ popped up; that’s on the box." So is an 1955 live recording of an effervescent Presley covering LaVern Baker's bouncy R&B hit "Tweedlee Dee.”
[For the Record: An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to "Tweedlee Dee" as a Ruth Brown hit.]
“It came with the territory: If you were young and known at the 'Louisiana Hayride,' when you came there on a Saturday you had to sing the songs that were popular at the time,” Jorgensen said. “Whether it was Elvis or [rockabilly singer] Jeanette Hicks, somebody had to sing ‘Tweedle Dee’ that night.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo of Elvis Presley performing in the 1950s. Credit: Sony Music Archives