The Elvis Hunter : On the Trail of the King with Ernst Jørgensen
She looks at him blankly for a moment, a pot of coffee hoisted in one hand. This apparently isn't a question she fields every day. 'I really have no idea', she says, shaking her head cheerfully. 'Can I get you anything else?'
Well, a photo would be nice. A tape of the concert, if it happened, would be even better. But right now, Jorgensen will settle for a witness, someone who can fill a rare gap in the stupendously detailed account of Presley's life that he's been assembling, on and off, for decades.
A native-born Dane who lives on a farm outside Copenhagen, Jorgensen has covered thousands of miles and burned tankloads of gas tracking down every imaginable detail of Presley's career, from the minutiae of recording sessions to the set lists of tours. He's unearthed lost songs and interviewed hundreds of Presley's engineers, producers and backup musicians. He's bought master tapes that were stolen from record-label vaults and ransomed for small fortunes.
If rock has a Columbo, it's Jorgensen, a heavy-smoking 52-year-old with a Nordic accent and bright blond hair. Elvis-hunting has been his full-time job since the early '90s, when he began a massive repackaging of Presley's music for BMG, the German conglomerate that owns the RCA label and, therefore, Elvis' catalogue. At least once a year, and sometimes more often, the company releases an album or a multi-CD box set compiled by Jorgensen in collaboration with a Brit named Roger Semon.
Their challenge is to sell a product that's musty by pop standards, and one that's already been sold and resold dozens of times. (More than 500 Presley albums, with plenty of overlap, have been released over the years.) So Semon searches for previously unpublished photos, while Jorgensen rummages around backwater towns and barters in the black market for Presley music, seeking outtakes or rarities, or fresher recordings of classics. Then, with a curator's zeal, the two package this bounty in ways that make the discs feel like events rather than old wine in spiffy bottles.
So far, it's worked. All told, the pair have helped move more than a half-billion dollars worth of CDs. That includes the fastest-selling Elvis CD in history -- 'Elvis: 30 #1 Hits', released last year -- and a follow-up disc, '2nd to None', which was released Tuesday. '2nd' is expected to debut near the top of the Billboard charts, giving Presley his second platinum album in two years.
And Elvis Inc. is busier than ever. In the coming months there'll be a gospel collection, a love songs anthology and a Sun Records retrospective, all overseen by Jorgensen and Semon. It turns out that Presley's audience is broader and more eager to buy and rebuy his songs than anyone had imagined. That includes his label, which for many years treated its most famous artist as little more than a paycheck in a gaudy cape.
'Elvis was really almost forgotten', says Mike Omansky, a former vice president at RCA. 'It was recognized that if you put out an Elvis release you'd make some money, but there was no effort to match the quality of product with Presley's artistry'.
Jorgensen changed that. He did it largely by treating Presley's life and work with a seriousness that nobody in the early '90s thought it warranted. One of his many projects now is writing a book pegged to the 50th anniversary of Elvis' start in show business -- dated from his first recording, 'That's All Right' in 1954 -- and for that opus he's digging into the earliest months of Presley's career, before the shy, hyperactive kid with the sideburns ushered in the age of rock. Accounting for the King's whereabouts during each day of this era is surprisingly tricky; he was catching fire at the time but wasn't yet ablaze. Jorgensen, though, is relentless. Through a barrage of transatlantic calls, 20 trips through the South and eight months on the road, he's managed to nail down all but a couple dozen dates.
Among the blanks: March 16, 1955. Jorgensen has found a letter inviting Elvis to play in Covington that day, at a 400-seat movie house called the Ruffin Theater. But was the invitation accepted? And if this guitar-playing meteor really crashed here, is anyone still around to describe the impact?
Jorgensen will scour the town for an answer this sweaty afternoon, with the town's historian and cemetery superintendent, a super-enthusiastic 38-year-old named David Gwinn. Jorgensen called him a few weeks ago and, since then, Gwinn has been poring over archived copies of the local newspaper, circa 1955. He found something tantalizing: a Ruffin Theater ad announcing a jamboree show on Wednesday, March 16.
Unfortunately, it doesn't mention any performers.
'We know that Elvis was in Austin the next night, that Thursday', Jorgensen says, consulting a timeline he's drafted that lists every known day of Presley's performing life. 'Austin is a good nine hours away', says Gwinn. He has a deep Southern drawl that turns 'time' into 'tam'. 'And there were no interstate highways around here at that tam'.
'It's not ideal planning', says Jorgensen, trying a forkful of meat. 'It's an all-night drive. They could have driven for as long as they could, taken turns at the wheel. It was just three guys with a bass [guitar] strapped to the roof of the car'.
There's no choice but to poll the locals. Feeling deputized, Gwinn gets out of his chair and kneels beside an elderly couple at a nearby table. It's Pat Weir and her husband, Ken. Mrs. Weir has a firm opinion on this subject.
'Elvis played at the Ruffin', she says, without hesitation.
Bingo, it seems, on the very first card.
Were you at the show? Gwinn asks.
'No, I wasn't', she says. 'I've just always heard that Elvis played here'.
Let the hunt begin.
The Fallen King
Before Ernst Jorgensen became the in-house Presley expert at BMG, the company's market research suggested that the typical Elvis fan fit a very narrow profile. She was a woman between 35 and 55 years old; she was white and Southern and married to a blue-collar worker; and she would never, under any circumstances, pay more than $10 for a Presley album.
This blinkered view of the King's appeal was inevitable, given the way his legacy was then marketed. Starting in the late '70s, Elvis albums were lobbed haphazardly into record stores, one after another. Some lacked a coherent theme ('Elvis Sings for Children and Grownups Too!'), others had a theme and an uneven song list, and many were hobbled by inferior recordings.
The strategy -- if you could call it that -- reflected the get-it-now style of Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, a former carny who emphasized cash flow over quality from the start of Elvis' career. When Presley died in 1977, the Colonel retained a strong hand in the way his only client was packaged, and that approach took on a momentum of its own after Parker passed away. To RCA, Presley was an afterthought, a valuable if neglected annuity and a low priority compared with the new acts then being pushed.
The focus wandered from Presley's music and onto his bizarre and graceless final years and exit. To Jorgensen, this seemed like a shame.
'After he died, all you saw of Elvis for 15 years was the bloated Elvis on the front of the National Enquirer', he says. 'The erratic behavior at the end of Presley's life had overshadowed one of the most important talents in this country. Nobody could hear the music anymore for all the nonsense'.
Jorgensen, then the top executive in BMG's Danish office, urged his bosses in Germany to demolish the slum that was Elvis' reputation and build a skyscraper in its place. BMG formed what it grandly called an 'international committee' to devise a new sales blueprint, and Jorgensen and Roger Semon drafted a costly and ambitious plan, later unveiled at a meeting in Paris, with Priscilla Presley, Elvis' ex-wife, in attendance. It took a few months to get all the necessary green lights -- Presley's estate had to be coaxed on board -- but the repackaging began in 1992 with the release of a five-disc box called 'The Complete 50's Masters'. It offered 140 songs, lots of photos and retailed for the seemingly outrageous sum of $79. With trepidation, the label ordered an initial run of 20,000 copies.
Four hundred thousand units later, the set has gone double-platinum. 'Masters' earned a fortune, but as important, it provoked a second look at Presley himself. Rolling Stone gave the box five stars and declared it 'monumental'. 'Presley the singer emerges as a workhorse, a student -- finally, unarguably, an artist', the magazine wrote. 'Masters' was snapped up by a whole new audience, including young men and, to the great astonishment of BMG, New Yorkers. The very memory of Elvis was on the mend.
'Ernst's approach has radically altered the context in which Elvis' music was perceived', says Peter Guralnick, who wrote a two-volume biography of Presley as well as the liner notes to 'Masters'. 'He assigned to Elvis' music the dignity and the ambition that it embodied, and he did it in a systematic way, in a way that reclaimed a life's work. It's hard to overestimate the value of that'.
That it took a Dane to organize the rescue of a singer who never toured Europe seems startling until you know Jorgensen's life history. Then it seems ordained. He discovered Presley as a kid in the early '60s, through his sister's records. By his late teens he felt compelled to learn everything about Elvis' recording sessions, though it wasn't typical fan worship that spurred his interest. Presley's fiascos were part of what intrigued him. 'I can tell exactly when I went from 'I'm curious' to 'I have to find out', ' he says. 'Elvis put out a soundtrack to [the 1967 film] 'Double Trouble', and I couldn't defend it. It was just terrible. And a few months after that he released [the single] 'Big Boss Man', and I needed to explain to myself how a guy could sound so worthless, singing songs like 'Old MacDonald', and then release a record that was such a revelation. I couldn't understand how greatness could be lost and found that quickly'.
And then lost and found again. Elvis' comeback in '68, courtesy of a storied television special, proved to Jorgensen that while Presley's nose for good material often failed him, his gifts as a singer did not. Jorgensen started writing letters to the United States when he was about 16, trying to reach producers and engineers and then badgering them for anything they knew: dates, the names of musicians, anything.
'I come from a school system where you're taught constantly to find out, to research', Jorgensen says on the drive to Covington, dangling a cigarette out the window. 'But there was no factual information about Elvis anywhere. In the middle of the '60s, RCA would suddenly release something from the late '50s and all you knew was that it didn't sound like anything Elvis had done recently. But that was it'.
Jorgensen self-published his research in a pamphlet that he updated every few years. It grew fatter with each edition, as it dawned on more of Presley's musical collaborators that the exotically stamped letters from Denmark wouldn't stop until their author had some answers. Five years ago, the latest edition was published by St. Martin's Press, a 384-page compendium called 'Elvis Presley: A Life in Music -- The Complete Recording Sessions'. It describes not just the songs, but even the jokes and casual asides between takes.
For Jorgensen, the appeal of this work, aside from the salary and the chance to exalt a singer he considers the colossus of pop, is the sleuthing. A fan of detective novels, he studies Presley's past the way a private eye studies murders. He finds clues that less fastidious minds would overlook, then deduces facts from the clues. He spent weeks pinpointing the evening that Presley's pink and white Cadillac caught fire in 1955 -- someone forgot to release the hand brake -- and now he dates shows based on what Elvis drove to the concert.
'If it's a pink and white Cadillac, it's before June 7. If it's a Ford Crown Victoria, the show was after June 7', Jorgensen says. 'And if it's a pink and black Cadillac, it's after July 10'.
Guralnick spent some time Elvis-hunting with Jorgensen a few years back and, at first, he didn't know what to make of him. 'I realized', he wrote in the introduction to 'Complete Recording Sessions', 'I was in the presence of either a madman or a great detective'.
Going to Graceland
The field trip to Covington starts in the morning, 40 miles away in Memphis, at the headquarters of Elvis Presley Enterprises. The operation is housed in a nondescript, unmarked brick building a few hundred yards from Graceland. It's here that the King's estate is administered and here that his likeness is marketed.
Jorgensen has spent countless hours in this office and at Graceland, but his relationship with this corporation is complicated. In 1973, Col. Parker and Presley struck one of the worst deals in rock history, selling to RCA the rights to everything Elvis had recorded to that point for less than $11 million. At the same time, EPE owns the rights to Presley's image, not to mention millions of Elvis-related documents. It's hard to sell the music without the image, or the image without the music. Like it or not, neither company can do business without the other.
A young lady named Angie Marchese escorts Jorgensen to a cluttered office in the back of the building. At his request, Marchese has brought along a file of photocopied letters sent to and from Bob Neal, Presley's first manager. Jorgensen hopes to cull some information about Elvis bookings, and perhaps a mention of Covington.
'How much time do you have?' Jorgensen asks Marchese, who has already made clear that she's in a rush.
'About 10 minutes', she answers, politely.
When Marchese leaves, so will the file. Nobody gets alone time with Elvis documents, not even Jorgensen. The reams of pages -- correspondence, notes and the entire written record of Presley's career -- are worth big money to unscrupulous collectors. BMG has the same security-first attitude these days about Presley's recordings, which are stored in a guarded facility under a mountain in Pennsylvania.
Ten minutes isn't enough time to comb this file and, anyway, it looks as though most of these letters date from the summer of '55 or later, when Col. Parker has already entered the picture and is beginning to assert control of Presley's future. Nothing here about Elvis concerts in that murky pre-Colonel period. Sitting under the fluorescent lights at this laminated table, Jorgensen hits his first dead end of the day.
'I should come back when there's time to read through all this', Jorgensen says. If he's disappointed, or annoyed that Marchese didn't produce the pages he wanted, you can't tell. After a stop for a cigarette in the parking lot, he's off to Covington.
Elvis Is in the Building
Jorgensen is about 6-foot-3, and so thin you want to buy him a milkshake. His voice is husky and low, his manner is deferential and patient. He's married and a father of two. Among Elvis fans, he's a revered authority, though his prominence and his power to shape the King's posterity have inevitably made him a target for Presley zanies.
'I've read some amazing stuff about myself on Web sites', he says, sounding more amused than wounded. Before he arrives in a town, Jorgensen typically gets in touch from Denmark with a librarian or historian and starts asking questions on the phone. Those conversations usually lead to other calls, which lead to people who either saw, met or hired Elvis. By the time Jorgensen gets to a town, he's often coming to pick up photos or for one-on-one interviews. In harder cases -- of which there are plenty -- he strolls around the streets talking to whomever he meets, and he hits the library.
Covington is a hard case. After lunch, with David Gwinn leading the way, Jorgensen gets a tour of the Ruffin Theater. It's miraculously intact -- even the upholstery is original -- and still used for local productions. Imagining Elvis in this building isn't difficult, because it looks like nothing here has been altered for 50 years.
Elvis was invited here by the now-deceased Jack Sallee, the theater's manager and then an aspiring songwriter whose work Presley had already recorded. ('You're a Heartbreaker' was the B-side of Elvis' third single, 'Milk Cow Blues'.) Sallee's nephew, Tim, works at the local electric company. On the chance that Tim would know if his uncle ever succeeded in luring Elvis to town, everyone piles into a car for a five-minute drive to Covington Electric.
'Tim is at a conference in Alabama', a secretary says. But Tim's wife is in town, working in the trustee's office in the town hall, right across the street from the Ruffin. Back in the car, to Court Square.
Together Gwinn and Jorgensen look like stars of an ill-conceived buddy-cop movie, and when they push through the door of the trustee's office, everyone looks briefly panicked. Once Jorgensen explains his mission to a startled Ginger Sallee, she exhales and offers the name and phone number of her father-in-law, James Sallee -- Jack's brother -- who lives an hour or so away. Within minutes, Gwinn has James on a speakerphone.
'I can tell you about Jack, but I can't tell you much about Elvis', he drawls over the line. 'Jack never did mention anything about Elvis coming to Covington, and I feel like that's something, if it happened, that he would have mentioned'.
It sounds definitive, though Jorgensen isn't leaving town just yet. He's accustomed to making progress inch by inch. For years after he'd taken over the Elvis portfolio for BMG, he was bloodhounding for master tapes and acetates that had vanished from RCA, either stolen or misplaced through neglect. By studying shipping notes, Jorgensen figured out that nearly all of the lost tracks had once been stored at the RCA studio in Los Angeles, and he began an all-points search for engineers and former employees who might have information. When he finally tracked down a tape, it was usually in the hands of someone who bought it from someone, who found it at a flea market -- or at least that was the story.
'Nobody ever confessed to a crime, but I suspect that often these were inside jobs', Jorgensen says. 'I imagine there were people at RCA contacted by collectors and paid to, you know, put the box of tapes at a certain place in a parking garage at a certain time'. Reclaiming this bounty led to some B-movie moments that in hindsight seem almost comical. In 1999, Jorgensen arranged a meeting in the lobby of the Hotel Nikko at Beverly Hills with a go-between sent by a jittery anonymous seller who'd acquired, somehow, about 25 tapes, including the original master of 'Heartbreak Hotel', as well as outtakes of 'It's Now or Never'. Jorgensen showed up with $10,000 in cash -- an additional $40,000 in cash for other songs would follow -- and bought the tapes back. Many of the songs wound up on the box set, 'Today, Tomorrow and Forever'. This seller's recording of 'Heartbreak Hotel' appears on '30 #1 Hits'.
'I never learned the seller's name', Jorgensen says, shaking his head in amusement. 'I guess he was nervous that the FBI would grab him. So I was in this hotel on La Cienega Boulevard with a bag of cash, meeting a middleman. I didn't eat the night before, because I was too nervous to leave the room with that much money'.
At least those tapes were real. Plenty of sellers are peddling fakes. A few years ago, a musician who'd worked with Presley in the '60s tried to unload what he described as an unreleased Elvis rehearsal. Jorgensen had his doubts.
'This musician said he was there at the rehearsal, and he insisted that this tape was legit, so for a while it was his word against mine. Then it turned out that the session included 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and after a little research I figured out that Paul Simon hadn't written that song at the time this tape was supposedly made'.
More recently, Jorgensen struck the rarest of paydirt: a never-released Elvis track. It's a rejected version of the title song of the 1964 Elvis movie, 'Roustabout', and the only known copy of it was in the possession of Winfield Scott, who co-wrote the song and stored it in his house in New Jersey. Jorgensen learned about the tune through a journalist, and then negotiated a deal with Scott. The track appears on '2nd to None'.
'This was like a miracle', Jorgensen told reporters when news of the discovery broke.
Can I Get a Witness?
Before he leaves Covington, Jorgensen decides to stop at a local library and look at some microfilm. He has a hunch: If Elvis played this town, the obituary in the Covington Leader the week of Presley's death, in August of 1977, would mention the show, a kind of local hook to a national story. An elderly librarian locates the right spools and hands them to Jorgensen.
'What exactly are you looking for?' she asks.
Jorgensen explains it all, including the different opinions he's heard that afternoon.
'Oh, I can tell you without a doubt', the librarian replies. 'Elvis played in Covington'.
'Were you at the show?'
'No. But my sister was'.
As it happens, her sister is Barbara Ruffin, the wife of the man who owned the Ruffin Theater. A phone call is made from the library, but there is no answer. And no mention in the Leader about Elvis and Covington the week he expired.
Jorgensen drives back to Memphis, unsure what to think.
A day later, Barbara Ruffin returns the call.
'He was good, but nobody thought too much about him being famous at the time', she says over the phone, recalling the night she watched Presley at a show at the Ruffin. 'He was just an up-and-coming local talent. There was a certain shyness about him. He wasn't really outgoing'.
There isn't any doubt in her mind. She remembers meeting him before the show, his clothing, his manners. Unfortunately, she can't find anyone to corroborate her memory. Her husband, her relatives and all the friends who might have been stuffed into that theater on March 16, 1955, have either passed away or moved out of town.
It turns out that Covington is split nearly down the middle, with half of the over-60 crowd certain that Elvis played here and half certain that he did not. The Elvis deniers, for what it's worth, are all men, and the affirmers are all women. Neither the gender divide nor the ultimate ambiguity is unusual, Jorgensen says.
'I'll use the info I have and juxtapose it with the stuff that's contradictory', he said recently on the phone from Denmark, explaining how he'll treat the date in his upcoming 50th anniversary book. 'It's a story in itself'.
Maybe proof positive will emerge in the coming months. Maybe not. But Jorgensen is moving on to other mysteries and other deals. He thought he'd be off the Elvis beat years ago, but the public appetite is, if anything, stronger than ever. On the phone Wednesday, he said he was negotiating for a newly surfaced recording of Presley singing at an Alabama radio station in 1955. The tape sounds promising, and you can tell from Jorgensen's voice that he can't wait to get his hands on it.
'It depends on the price, and the quality of the recordings', he says. 'But we're hopeful that we can acquire it'.
The Elvis Hunter - On the Trail of the King with Ernst Jorgensen, The Man Behind Presley's Latest Comeback
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2003; Page N01
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