So what's the sense in the latest - 'Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight', 100 Elvis cuts on a four-disc box set?
Elvis' music on this box has been remastered yet again. Could a casual fan tell the difference?
'If you had the ideal way to listen to this you'd have it in the recording studio with the actual analog tape playing back on the machine it was recorded on and the speakers it was recorded on. This is the constant struggle for us, to get closer and closer to that. With the new technology we can transfer the tape with a higher resolution. We can work with it in 24-bit, 32-bit environment, and make sure we get as close to the exact sound as the analog tape. We've taken every one of Elvis' 711 masters and tried to do a better job on them. On some the improvement will be more important than on others. It all depends on how well we did before. It's interesting to do it. It's a joy to do it. I think that most people, unless they sit there and A/B it versus what they had before, they're just gonna say 'Wow, this sounds great'.
What's the purpose in putting out all this music again?
'We're a little bit on a mission.
We always try to see if we can get new devotees for our little project, get people to look beyond the 30 number-one hits. This box set is really what that's all about. Maybe it's even more about that than it is about getting a better sound. … it gives us the opportunity to put a package out that's tempting because it has all the hits. And then fans go in … and find all these songs that are nowhere near as famous but that we think are aesthetically just as important and see if we can get people excited about the Elvis they didn't know'.
What songs in particular?
'Some of Elvis' best-known songs in America like 'Love Me Tender', 'Hound Dog', 'Don't Be Cruel' - they've sold 40 million copies in the U.S. Haven't you then covered everything? But if you look at his Sun recordings, to many people … those are some of the greatest of his recordings. Sales figures on those titles are like three, four, five million. There's plenty of room for our mission to get more people to look beyond the hits'.
Some people know 'My Baby Left Me' only through the Creedence Clearwater Revival version, not Elvis'.
'Yep. That's a very good example. If you listen to 'Heartbreak Hotel' that was the fist hit on RCA, that's about the most unusual hit you could ever imagine - a slow, bluesy song with a morbid theme. That became a hit. Who could have expected that? But during the same week he recorded 'My Baby Left Me' and 'One-Sided Love Affair'. This is the kick I get from it - to choose 100 songs where 30 or 40 of them are already major hits. You have to choose 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy' or 'Shake Rattle and Roll' - the idea of having people listening to songs they don't know that well….that's the fun part of it'.
Session sheet for 'My Baby Left Me'
What's the state of the Elvis tape vault - is it Beatles-neat or a total mess?
'It was somewhere in the middle when I started, but pretty good today. We'd had a lot of tapes that developed legs and walked away from our various premises. We've gotten them back. We found out where they disappeared, and let them know they needed to come back. By 2001/02 we had all the masters that could be found in our vaults. But it was a long, long process of detective work. We had to go back and find out when tapes got lost, who was around in those days, what studios were used, then start hunting down people'.
Ernst Jorgensen in the vault, 1989
The vault cleaned up.
What's the condition of the tapes? How are they holding up?
'There's a problem with tapes in the mid to late '70s. I think Ampex tapes were one of the brands that were really, really bad. We realized very early on - that's not what was missing in our vaults. The tapes that disappeared seemed to be the historically more interesting tapes like the master of 'Heartbreak Hotel'. We made safeties back then. I don't think that our '70s tapes are as bad as the average. Some of our multi-tracks need baking every time we play them. In general we're doing well with the Elvis tapes. There was a tendency earlier on in the early days of CDs where people put whatever master was there that included a certain track instead of going back and finding the originals. There was a sloppiness during a decade or two where business didn't prioritize catalog releases. They didn't go that extra mile to find the generation before'.
'Some of the Sun masters don't exist and seem to have never existed. When RCA took over Sun we got tapes from Sam Phillips but there were at least four songs where we never got a tape. What we put out on record in the '50s was taken from 45s and 78s. I love Sam Phillips, I think he's a genius, but he was a mess with his tapes! Tape was expensive. They recorded over it because money was scarce at the time. By the mid-'50s RCA was a major record company and they had procedures on how to do things that ensured it was done properly. What happened later was the tapes were not controlled well enough and were allowed to leave the house'.
Are you still finding Elvis rarities?
'If we were to find anything today it may be a private recording of Elvis. I'm dreaming here, but if somebody said they had tape for two or three of Elvis' Louisiana Hayride performances back in '55, that'd be wonderful. In principal that could happen. From the RCA standpoints there are no sessions where we don't have the tapes or the masters. I can't see we'd ever find anything on that level. Ten or 15 years ago if you found rare recordings by an artist like Elvis or the Beatles it would be a sensation in the media when it came out. Today if we would find two Elvis songs people haven't heard before it wouldn't be'.
'Because it's been done so many times. We've found so many rare releases it's like the 'Cry wolf' logic. Is the world really gonna go nuts hearing Elvis sing 'Rock Around the Clock' at the Louisiana Hayride in 1955?'
It reminds me of the Jimi Hendrix estate.
There where a lot of shoddy releases followed his death, but these days it's controlled better.
'That's a very good point. When I came in in the late '80s there was market research done at RCA, which was a pretty hip thing to do in the '80s. They went out and defined who the Elvis customer was - a woman between 35 and 55, a housewife, married to a blue-collar worker, living in the south, not willing to pay more than $8 for an Elvis item. One of the first things we did was a box set called 'The King of Rock 'n' Roll' and sold it for $80 dollars, which was 10 times what the market research said we should do. And it sold 400,000 boxes in America. The one thing we learned from that was the perception of who likes Elvis is utterly wrong'.