This is a work in progress and will continue to be until the full facts finally emerge. Thus it would be helpful if any fans with additional information and quotable sources pertinant to the shape and form of this article would send in their contributions to Nick. Like a jigsaw puzzle the pieces are slowly coming together and beginning to make sense. Much of the information in the article has previously been in the public arena but became lost in the mists of time and has never before been assembled in the same place.
Some might say spin and hype did not start with politics, but in the entertainment world way back at the time of the Roman circuses. And nowhere will you find the air more thick with spin or hype than in the record industry. It seems that pretty well everybody in the business tends to exaggerate the achievements of their clients simply because they know that everyone else is doing the same. Bing Crosby's disc sales were once upon a time estimated by his record company on the basis of a somewhat quirky analysis of his sheet music sales and those of the Beatles were for years inflated on the rather spurious grounds that the sale of each one of their albums should be considered as equivalent to six singles. It is, however, going to come as rather a shock when fans begin to realise that the Presley figures have also not been immune to the odd spot of massaging over the years. Elvis did not sell 1 billion records by 1982 which claim first appeared via an article in the 'Washington Post' dated 12 July of that year and quoted RCA as its source, nor is there any validity in the current claim of 1.5 billion - whatever Sony BMG may say in the liner notes on the back of one or two recent DVD releases. Rest assured my investigations reveal that Elvis is still by some distance the greatest record seller of all time, but even 26 years later it is no easy task trying to establish whether or not his sales have actually exceeded one billion copies.
So what happened? Well it seems that around five years after Elvis died a former Radio Luxembourg DJ by the name of Don Wardell took over from Joan Deary as the product manager in charge of the Elvis catalogue at RCA. And it was during his watch that the 'Washington Post' claim first began to appear on the back of Elvis albums and in press releases. Somebody else in the old RCA backroom may have initially dreamt up the figures but it was Don Wardell who publicised them and thus must bear the responsibility. When some time later after BMG took over RCA the new team tried and failed to elicit any kind of rational explanation from Don Wardell it swiftly became apparent to them that he hadn't got one. Unfortunately it would appear that those in the company who knew this to be the case kept quiet, presumably because they felt stuck with a claim that over the years had come to be largely accepted by much of the media and regarded as beyond dispute by the fans. Inexplicably, about three years ago one or two folk at Sony/BMG proceeded to take this discredited claim a stage further - which strikes me as a patently senseless and daft approach to take since if there is one artist whose achievements require little hype it surely has to be Elvis Presley.
So how many records has Elvis actually sold? The truth is that nobody really knows or will ever know. Whilst, despite the confusion and speculation concerning the exact number of alleged 'missing' sales, the American figures can be pinned down to within an acceptable margin of error, Presley's international sales - like those of many other if not all artists - are very much more difficult to ascertain.
Nevertheless there is still sufficient, if largely circumstantial evidence available, to enable a researcher to arrive at some sort of ball park figure. Since no global certification process common to all artists exists that is all that can be done anyway whoever we are talking about.
Right from the start of this exercise it became evident that the previous 'finger in the wind' guesses purporting to suggest that Elvis' US sales accounted for about 60% of the total were simply not borne out by the market evidence past or present. I have tracked the origin of this estimate back to the 1972/3 negotiations which eventually led to the buy out of Elvis' back catalogue. RCA had to get some idea of his overseas sales so as to help them decide where to pitch their initial offer to the Colonel, but it turned out that nobody in the company had a clue as to what royalties Elvis was actually receiving from overseas outlets and since they could hardly ask him RCA simply came up with a back of the envelope stab in the dark.
It is more than likely that overseas outlets just mailed their royalty cheques directly to Graceland but did not send copy correspondence to head office although presumably there must have been some sort of end of year report. Interestingly occasional comments made by some of Elvis Presley's many songwriters over the years strongly suggest that they did indeed receive the majority of their royalties from overseas, but it's not enough to hang any kind of hat on and in truth any researcher has to look elsewhere for clues and ferret out such evidence as exists circumstantial or otherwise.
There is no question that the American share of the global market has been in steady decline for several decades - dating back to the time that countries as far apart as Brazil and Japan first began to embrace Western music and culture. This is clearly demonstrated by the total global musical sales for the year 2005, which with figures cast in billions of dollars reads as follows:
1 USA 7.0
2 Japan 3.7
3 UK 2.2
4 Germany 1.4
5 France 1.2
The rest 5.3
Total USA share of market 33.7%
Rest of the World 66.3%.
In fact whilst a fifties classic such as 'Hound Dog' may well have initially sold twice as many copies in the States, as it did elsewhere - which as only the Americans had developed a consumer based society by that stage should hardly come as a surprise - it is plain from what we do know that subsequently anything up to 70% of the sales of later singles were sold overseas. In Europe alone virtually all the big Presley hits from 'It's Now or Never' onwards more than matched US sales and there is a wealth of evidence available to prove this. Indeed not only did the 1974/5 single 'My Boy' actually sell more copies (450,000) in the UK than it did in the States but a 1971 single 'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me' did likewise in Japan.
Twenty five years ago RCA were saying much the same thing. Perhaps not surprisingly the last album released during his lifetime 'Moody Blue' was by 1982 thought to be one of the King's top sellers with global sales put at more than 14 million copies. However once US exports to Canada are excluded and ignoring any 'lost' sales factor since that is pure guesswork then it would seem that less than 3 million of those were actually sold to the home market. Go back another decade and you'll find that the sales of the first greatest hits packages tell a not dissimilar story.
As for singles thanks to the songwriters we know how the sales split in some cases - for example in 1969/70 when 'The Wonder of You' sold exactly 995,000 copies in the USA and some 2,200,000 overseas. It was pretty much the same with 'Don't Cry Daddy'. And by the time we get to 1977 and 'Way Down' the overseas market had become completely dominant.
The exception to the picture I have painted is Presley's gospel music which continues to find particular favour with the strong Christian movement in the States and has no parallel elsewhere.
Domestically the indications are that Elvis has sold about 400 million records which can be broken down as follows:
Summary Of American Sales OF 1954-2008
|Category||Documented / Estimated Sales (Millions) (Rounded up)|
|RIAA certified sales||170|
|Sales currently awaiting RIAA certification||10|
|Sales above/between certification levels *||60|
|Sales below minimum certification levels*||55|
|Sun / RCA / Pickwick - Estimated missing sales**||45|
|Excluded or disqualified RIAA sales ***||20|
|Others- Estimated sales under licence ****||40|
* The RIAA only certify sales which reach defined levels and therefore sales below their radar screen and between one level and the next level don't count in their statistics.
** Talk about a hornet's nest! For a start only a few scattered sales statistics exist for the period between March 1973 and January 1976, although rough estimates can be made on the basis of what information is available and bearing in mind the sales for the years either side of this gap. It appears that immediately the 1973 royalty buyout came into force RCA stopped issuing either Elvis or the Colonel with sales figures relating to any of his records released before 1/3/1973, all of which started selling heavily again in the wake of the 'Aloha' US telecast broadcast. Neither these nor indeed a number of other sales were logged on the RCA computer when it was first installed in January 1976, many millions unaccountably never made it in the chaos after his death a subject to which I shall return - and I am reliably informed that at one point some sales actually fell OFF the computer. A considerable number of both Sun and Pickwick returns are also lost. Whilst it is indeed a sorry tale I don't think that the total damage is as great as some fans seem to imagine. In my view not much more than 10% of Elvis' US sales may be missing - but it is not a view others share.
*** A number of double albums were counted as one album by the RIAA because of their playing time. But they were physically distributed as two albums and priced accordingly so Sony BMG are justifiably entitled to count them as such. Some budget albums were disqualified because they fell below designated pricing parameters. If such records are considered to be square pegs in round holes then it is not clear why the RIAA cannot come up with a separate category or two and perhaps in time they will.
**** Yet another elephant I found lurking in the corner. After the 1973 buyout and right up to the present day literally dozens and dozens of heavily promoted Elvis compilations were released through other outlets under special licence. No less than a staggering 30 or so major independent labels operating in the mail order sphere have been involved at one time or another not to mention untold numbers of smaller scale regional enterprises. Time-Life alone was responsible for some 20 extensively promoted national releases all of which sold heavily. Documentation is not available in the form prescribed by the RIAA but projections - which err if anything on the modest side - can be made thanks to research by Sony BMG, trade journal sales reports from over the years and because it seems unlikely that even those regional companies of which little is known would have signed up to RCA-BMG's exacting terms unless they felt confident of attracting sufficiently large orders. Or to put it another way they wouldn't have kept coming back for more.
Even more crucial are the more than 250 additional RCA / Sony BMG albums the latter - you have to take their word for this number - claim to have released in the USA and ranging from regular releases to rather more obscure RCA record club projects all of which have yet to reach the minimum RIAA thresholds and probably never will. However in reaching an estimate a distinction should be drawn between the club releases which may have sold as little as 50,000 copies and the likes of 'Pot Luck' (1962) and 'Today' (1975) whose sales are not far short of the half million mark. Elvis' lifetime royalty sheets also indicate that many of his uncertified singles sold just under half a million copies including titles such as 'Do the Clam', 'Such an Easy Question' and 'Love Letters'. When the US singles market generally went into decline from the mid 1970's onwards so too, quite naturally, did the sales of Elvis' 45 rpm releases. Even so by the standards of the day Elvis remained a very consistent seller right up until his death. Had a Billboard sales only chart existed back then this would have been even more obvious than it was.
The release of so many albums over the years has been both a curse and a blessing. It has, so far, prevented any Elvis album officially reaching RIAA diamond status - 10 million copies (actually two albums have done so unofficially (Elvis Christmas album 1970 Camden version and Aloha from Hawaii) - but thus far they have been denied an award for some of the reasons mentioned above). This policy has however undoubtedly boosted Elvis' overall sales because of the constant promotion of recycled material under new titles, often at very affordable prices. The film song content of some of the cheaper albums on display in the superstores may have occasionally upset the more discerning Presley fan, who would rather that the world did not know that Elvis had ever recorded 'Old Macdonald', but the fact is that over the years these albums have ended up in many a shopping basket and like it or not are one of his key sales components.
** Diamond awards are only given for US sales.
The two albums mentioned above which are unofficially ten million sellers in the States - the 1970 version of the first Christmas album with 9 million certified sales and 1/2 million sales which were disqualified because the price of the latter was below RIAA parameters ($2 dollars I think)=10/11 million and the 1973 'Aloha' album which has certified sales of 5 million but as it is or was a double album has therefore sold 10 million units. However its running time is below RIAA rules so they count it as a single album BUT that is nonsense because it was priced and pressed as a two album set. BMG continue to argue the toss.
There are a number of other points to be made at this juncture namely:
For reasons which appear to have gone to the grave with Sam Phillips, Sun Records apparently did not reveal anything like the full extent of Elvis' sales when they sold his contract to RCA in November 1955. [Read our article on Carl Perkins and maybe you can draw a conclusion here for yourself]
Certification of record sales requires documentation not of any actual sales sheets, but of the shipping invoices sent to the distributor and the returns of unsold discs made to the supplier. Such a requirement can obviously be that much more onerous if any third parties with little or no interest in the subject are involved in the process.
The RIAA certify all sales of a disc including re-releases whether or not there has been a change in the catalogue number provided the inclusion of any additional tracks does not bring the total to more than 17.
In 1959 RCA put total sales at 50 million; in 1964/5-100 million later revised to 125 million; in 1970 - 250 million and in 1976 - 400 million. Although these figures should be treated with a certain degree of caution it was only when Elvis died that things appeared to really go awry.
It is not generally appreciated that during the 1950's Elvis probably sold more extended play albums than he did long playing albums. Given the technology of the day EP's were simply easier to handle and also less costly.
Sony BMG will NOT spend money on undertaking expensive historical research into past sales and I am afraid that it is useless remonstrating with them. To some extent you can't blame them but a wall of silence over the years has left the impression that they must have something to hide (they don't) and that has not endeared them to some fans.
Sales in the year following Elvis' death may account for more than one in five of the total. Some idea of the scale involved actually emerged through the 1977/8 interim and final audited record company reports.
The sheer number of regional releases made around the globe makes it impossible to detail international sales although to his eternal credit Marc Hendricks of Belgium has assembled a great many of them. Many achieved truly staggering sales figures. For example little Denmark purchased an incredible 150,000 copies of a 1968 release entitled 'A Portrait in Music', whilst in 1974 the double album '40 Greatest Hits' shattered every known speed sales record previously set in the UK. A German inspired release entitled 'Elvis Forever' and its successors swept Europe around 1975/6 and did exactly the same. The rapid increase in demand for Presley product in the lucrative South East Asia market during the early seventies was the main driving force behind the initial live telecast of the 'Aloha' special in 1973.
It would seem that the growth of sales in overseas markets- reflected in the success of such records as 'It's Now or Never' - generally began to take off around about the time Elvis was demobbed from the army in 1960. The statistics show that in the UK market for example overall sales of records had climbed from 66 million units in 1959 to over 100 million by 1964.
In the case of Elvis other indicators include:
# The considerable number of known singles which according to RCA managed to sell over a million copies worldwide, all in the period between 1960 and 1977, despite selling LESS than half of that total in the USA.
# Yet more singles which achieved an RIAA award for selling just over half a million copies at home, but thanks to healthy international sales are said by RCA to have EASILY passed the million mark all told. At the request of the Colonel himself RCA did at least attempt to track the world wide sales progress of singles for possible inclusion on a subsequent gold disc album of which there are five. Specific evidence of this can be found, for example, in the RCA brochure which accompanied the tour of Australia by Elvis Presley's gold Cadillac in 1968. This listed no less than 45 million sellers and 19 half million sellers up to that time.
# Those singles which were NEVER released in the States, but were huge hits in a wide range of countries overseas, including amongst others 'A Mess of Blues' (1960), 'Wooden Heart' (1961), 'I Just Can't Help Believing' (1971) and 'The Girl of My Best Friend' (1976).
# In several key overseas markets some sales were documented and certified - even as far back as the 1950's. In the UK for example the now long moribund 'Disc and Music Echo' pop magazine had by the time it folded awarded Elvis around two dozen silver discs-currently assumed to be lurking in the Graceland vaults - each for AUDITED sales of over 250,000 copies apiece.
# Even more tellingly an RCA press release issued in May 1965 and subsequently published in Billboard magazine stated that only some 14 million, out of a total of the first 100 million Elvis records sold around the world were in fact for albums. That figure then doubled within the next 3 years although in Elvis' case much of this should be credited not to the film soundtrack recordings, whose sales were solid rather than spectacular, but to the album releases of the fifties and early sixties since these clearly achieved the bulk of their sales only AFTER the end of 1964. All that can be easily deduced from a glance not only at the overall industry figures which showed album sales suddenly accelerating to the point where they had overtaken sales of singles by 1968 but at Elvis' actual certified domestic sales for albums released in the years between 1956 and 1964 and then observing by just how much those figures exceeded the May 1965 statement. Indeed it was the sustained upsurge in the dollar sales of his old albums that enabled RCA to proudly claim in a 1966 New Year's Day telegram to the Colonel that 1965 had been Elvis' best year to date beating out even 1956.
# What seems to have caused this spectacular increase in the sales of records especially albums at a time when Elvis' popularity was hardly at a career peak? Well remember this was around the time when the Beatles, the Stones and the rest of the 'beat' groups first sprang onto the scene and caused sales to leap to unheard of figures benefiting everyone even Elvis. Happily - at least for record company profits - this musical revolution coincided with teenagers all over the world, including the post army 'second' wave of fans picked up by Elvis, discovering that they were able to persuade or cajole their parents into shelling out a bit more pocket money than their elder brothers or sisters were used to receiving during the post war years. In addition many of the latter, who would have been amongst the first wave of Elvis fans back in the mid 1950's, were ten years on, beginning to get into regular employment . Very probably many of these fans used their newly found purchasing powers to acquire ALL the classic Presley albums they had previously been unable to afford and in particular to replace worn out singles with the gold disc albums.
# In 1987 RCA gave Graceland a somewhat baffling award which listed no less than 48 titles that for the most part had not gained due recognition for past sales. The titles included a HOST of mid sixties soundtrack albums and mid seventies singles which even today have failed to achieve domestic certification. That can only mean that the majority of these sales had been accrued from foreign parts.
All this evidence seems to point towards an overall international sales figure that at the very least now represents over 60 % of total global sales to date i.e. a minimum of 600 million copies or units once the US figure is duly adjusted. It is almost certainly greater than that but I just don't see on the basis of the available evidence how any researcher can be more precise.
Finally I feel that it is now safe to say that the sales of Presley records have passed that coveted one billion milestone and possibly may even have done so about 5 years ago. That places him several hundred million ahead of anyone else. And I would add that despite Michael Jackson's periodic claims I very much doubt that the gloved one is anywhere near the Beatles (600 million) far less Elvis.
But I end with a plea.
This endless Beatles v Elvis debate should end.
How can you sensibly compare a group of people to one especially when their music is as different as chalk and cheese? Whereas Elvis' claim to musical prowess was based on the magnificent instrument that was his voice allied to the sheer scale of his vision and his extraordinary interpretative powers that of the Beatles rests on their superb song writing skills, craftsmanship and inventiveness. In more ways than one these two greats came from a different place. Let it finally rest there I say.
This article will continue to be treated as a work in progress and updated on this website as and when any significant new information comes to hand.
By Nick Keene - Originally published 17 July 2007. Updated April 2008.
Written and researched by Nick Keene with help from Ernst Jorgensen and source's at Sony BMG.