Video Interview with Ernst Jorgensen

By: Elvis Australia
September 11, 2011

Video interview with Ernst Jorgensen. Ernst talks about his becoming an Elvis fan as a teenager, discovering Elvis tapes in the RCA vaults, including songs such as 'A Hundred Years From Now' and tapes that should have been in the vaults but were not. Ernst also talks about his mastering of Elvis' songs and the challenges involved, Elvis' duets with Ann Margret and Elvis Movies including his 'greatest movie', Elvis That's The Way It Is. And finally, Meeting Priscilla for the first time and her playing him 'My Happiness', and telling Ernst 'we think this is Elvis', and then the discovery of the second acetate - and much more.

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Ernst Jorgensen

Ernst Jorgensen is a long time fan from Danmark, who became a producer and Elvis Presley catalog expert. He produced the box-sets The King Of Rock 'n' Roll, From Nashville To Memphis and Walk A Mile In My Shoes - The Essential 70's Masters among many other CD releases. He also wrote the book Elvis Presley: A Life in Music, The Complete Recording Sessions and co-wrote Elvis - Day By Day with Peter Guralnick. Ernst Jorgensen is also the driving power behind Follow That Dream, The Official Elvis Presley Collectors Label.

Danish-born Ernst Jorgensen wrote his first version of this book way back in the 1970s. At the time, he was just a fan, of Elvis but The Doors, too. Then he got into the music business and, in time, became an executive at BMG, RCA's parent company. By the late 1980s, he was running Arista Denmark. 

In 1991, BMG, weary of US RCA's loss-making sluggishness, sent its European executives over to revive its American operations. Jorgensen was appointed to run the Elvis reissue programme, which till then had been haphazard and incoherent. That was a result of market research, Jorgensen later explained. RCA's diligent and accurate surveys found that 'the typical Elvis consumer was a woman between the ages of 35 and 55, who was married to a blue-collar worker, and who was unwilling to spend more than $8 on an Elvis album. This research was taken as gospel at the time I arrived'.

Expecting to work on the Elvis catalogue for two or three years, he is still on it and still based in Denmark. He started by setting the RCA market surveys to one side and putting together a box set, The King of Rock 'n' Roll: The Complete 50s Masters. Budgeted to sell 20,000, it eventually did 400,000. Jorgensen did his job with taste and drive, compiling a series of box sets (Essential 60s Masters etc) and greatest hits compilations such as Elvis: 30 #1 Hits (2002). For the true believers, he created the Follow That Dream label which puts out soundboard recordings, outtakes and originally unissued soundtracks. By late 2013, there were more than 120 albums on the label, some of which were previously available as bootlegs and some of which were entirely new material.

When you're an Elvis Presley fan, if a newly released CD, book or DVD has the name Ernst Mikael Jorgensen stamped upon it, you're guaranteed one thing, a flawlessly executed, rigorously researched and historically sound project of exceptional quality, class, and listenability.

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Interview with Ernst Mikeal Jorgensen

Ernst Mikeal Jorgensen is one of the world's leading experts on the musical life of Elvis Presley. Ernst Jorgensen was born in Denmark and began a lifelong interest in Presley at an early age. He worked in marketing and A&R until he was hired by the Danish subdivision of BMG Ariola to head BMG's Danish operation. When BMG bought RCA in 1988, he seized the opportunity and made his passion for all things Presley into a career. Along the way, he's written two books. Elvis Presley: A Life in Music : The Complete Recording Sessions, details the decisions Presley made in selecting material and working out arrangements. It includes a comprehensive list of everyone who played on every session. Elvis Day by Day, written with fellow Presley scholar Peter Guralnick, tracks the King's everyday life, from the mundane (like the day he got his first library card) to significant (like the events of his last day on earth).

While Ernst Jorgensen may not be well-known by people who are not Presley fans, the enthusiasm and musical scholarship he brings to the King's career is evident in every word he speaks.

Crawdaddy!: Do you enjoy doing interviews?

Ernst Jorgensen: I always look forward to talking about my favorite subject. I dreamed about [doing this job] when I was a kid. I wanted to meet Elvis and be put in charge of his song selection.

He was a lot older than me, so maybe the age difference would have been too great and maybe I wouldn't have gotten along with him, but I was dreaming of what life could be. I thought Elvis was an edgy artist, just like I thought the Stones were harder than the Beatles. In Denmark, they didn't put out any Elvis records before 1968, after he had already taken a downturn in his career.

Most of my friends listened to Peter, Paul & Mary, Dylan, and the Beatles, but since Elvis was the first artist I got excited about, he remained my hero, despite his less-than-satisfying soundtrack albums.

I was good in history, and my parents had hundreds of detective novels. I thought about being a detective, so when I saw there were no facts on Elvis records - who wrote the songs and who played on them? - I wanted to find that out for myself. That became the journey that made me write the books on Presley's recordings. I started off sending letters [to record labels and his friends] to find out who played in the bands and who selected the songs. I was inspired by the music and wondered how he could sing a song like Old MacDonald on the Double Trouble soundtrack, not one of his finest recordings, then turn around and do Jimmy Reed's Big Boss Man and make it sound so bluesy and authentic. I wanted to know how one artist could make records that were so different; it sounded like two different people.

That's the fun part of researching EP's career. How likely is it that a boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who had no music in his life, would become the biggest artist in the world?

At first, I thought his story was a little too close to the American Dream for comfort. Then I saw he was an original, a little weird, and a little bit off, and making music that had something unusual to it.

In the '60s, when rock became big business, RCA got desperate for Elvis to sing like he used to, but he would only do recordings for soundtracks. He didn't make any studio recordings. That's when they first started digging up old material from the vaults, songs like Ain't That Loving You Baby that didn't sound like EP at all. They were releasing stuff from the '50s and pretending it was new. Everyone got weary of EP.

Crawdaddy!: Is your background musical, technical, or both?

Ernst Jorgensen: I worked for PolyGram and then BMG as a marketing and A&R man. I found and discovered new bands and worked with singers who weren't realizing their potential.

I'm not strong on technical issues, but I work with engineers that are.

Crawdaddy!: How did Elvis become your main job?

Ernst Jorgensen: I was the Managing Director of BMG in Denmark when BMG bought RCA in 1986. At that time, RCA was losing millions of dollars a year. At one of the first meetings with the new German Board of Directors, I spoke up and asked why they treated the Presley back-catalog so poorly.

After I sat down, I realized I might have just ended my career. There was a period of silence and then one of the guys on the board gave me a look and said, 'If you're so smart, why don't you do it?' I thought I'd handle it for a couple of years and move on. Almost 25 years later, I'm still at it.

The first thing I did was fly to New York and meet with RCA's marketing department. They told me they had demographic studies that proved the typical Elvis consumer was a woman between the ages of 35 and 55, who was married to a blue-collar worker and was unwilling to spend more than eight dollars on an Elvis album. They assured me this was true, but I was just as sure they were wrong.

I suggested a box set at 80 dollars, The King of Rock 'n' Roll : The Complete '50s Masters. I don't think the American management of RCA realized we were going to do a box set. I don't even think they knew they were paying my salary. One of the guys at RCA had come over from Capital, where he'd worked with the Beatles reissues; he helped clear the path for me to start the Elvis project.

Joe Galante, who was the head of RCA, told me the company would commit to making 20,000 copies of the set. When he had pre-orders for 40,000 copies, he moved up the release date and we sold 100,000 copies the first week. Retail believed in it more than the record company. RCA had no idea what they were dealing with. Once they saw the sales numbers, the Americans all changed their ideas about Elvis. At an RCA convention later on, Joe Galante came up and hugged me and thanked me for what I'd done. I just thought it was the right way to do it because their idea of who liked Elvis was absurd. It wasn't just older women who thought he was sexy. Mostly, it was men who lived all over the world, serious music lovers and collectors. The King of Rock 'n' Roll became the blueprint for what we've been doing since, and it wouldn't have happened if BMG didn't buy RCA and Arista. The Germans were happy to be associated with great American music. Europeans often appreciate the music more than you Americans. BMG's upper management loved the idea of having EP.

Crawdaddy!: There are those that claim that Elvis merely borrowed the style of the black singers he'd heard, that he ripped off African-American artists. What's your view?

Ernst Jorgensen: You could certainly make the claim that black songwriters were taken advantage of by the music business, but Elvis didn't. Look at EP's first record, Arthur 'Big Boy' Cruddup's That's All Right Mama. At the time Cruddup recorded it, it was sold as a race record primarily to the African-American record buyers of the south. Elvis made it a new song, with a melodic content that's obvious, but only implied, on Cruddup's record. He did the same with Bill Monroe's Blue Moon of Kentucky. It's almost a whole new song in EP's arrangement, more blues than bluegrass and with a different tempo. The only thing Elvis did for Cruddup was to bring him to light. Cruddup's record was done 10 years before EP's version and RCA paid him royalties, or should have. If Cruddup didn't get paid, EP didn't know about it. You could make the same charge against the Beatles and Stones who covered tons of R&B material. Those records helped bring some of those black bands back into the limelight. You could just as well accuse EP of stealing country songs and gospel songs. I understand the frustration of black artists not getting the credit or financial rewards that were due, but that has much to do with poverty and ignorance, not with Elvis ripping them off.

Crawdaddy!: Did you know when you started that you'd be an important man in the preservation of Elvis' recorded legacy?

Ernst Jorgensen: I thought if I did the job for two or three years, I could hear all the rarities and lost records I dreamed about when I was young. After building the Danish company from scratch, I wasn't sure I was doing what I should do. When they asked me to do Elvis fulltime, I said, 'sure'. It's as good a job as I could ever get. I never knew it was going to be a fulltime job, or a lifelong job. I was hoping to eventually do the same thing for the Stones or the Doors, who are my favorite band, but the success of King of Rock 'n' Roll changed everything.

Crawdaddy!: What surprised you as you went through the recordings for the recent remastering of all Elvis' songs? [As released on Young Man with the Big Beat]

Ernst Jorgensen: What first surprised me was that Sony decided to do it.

Then I got to go back to the masters again and see what was there. It humbled and amazed me to look at the original tapes and made me wish I had done better on the King set. With the improvements in technology and the knowledge of the engineers that worked with me, we managed to get better sound this time.

Neil Young once said that listening to a CD was like sticking needles in your eardrums. He was set against CDs. He thought they were painful to listen to. The average non-audiophile might not be aware of the sound limitations of CDs, but I am. Going back to redo the process became an obsession. We spent two years going through the masters and didn't find any new rarities, but putting the entire career in perspective was amazing. The rarities show different sides of EP that support the story of the records. There are rehearsals, outtakes, and private recordings from his home, all of it of historical and musical importance. None of the tapes went bad, but we could transfer them better by using vintage equipment. You could hear some of the bad splices that were made on some of the tapes, and we were able to go in and fix them. If there was too much reverb on something, we didn't fix that. We wanted to stay true to the original intent, whether the choices were artistically successful or not. The aim is to write history not rewrite it. The book shows you that EP's artistic merits are great enough to bring all the lesser songs out into the open. It's not just talking about the great records, but putting the entire career into perspective, record by record.

We had to correct recording dates and fix mistakes. It was exhausting, but tons of fun. Finding something new about his career, or finding pictures no one has ever seen before, is still a thrill.

Crawdaddy!: How much work went into the sound?

Ernst Jorgensen: Two years from first transfers until the discs were all organized. It wasn't all day, every day, but Vic Anesini, our main engineer and Sebastion Jeansson, our tech expert in Sweden, kept challenging each other. They made some transfers five or six times. It took up a lot of time.

We also worked with [Presley expert] Peter Guaralnick, who was writing about each record. We found pictures from the recording sessions that matched the text. They are not all flattering pictures, but ones that illustrate the story we wanted to tell. It was overwhelming, but I'd asked for it.

Crawdaddy!: Did you upgrade the sound or use the original mono takes?

Ernst Jorgensen: It depends on when they were recorded.

If it was released in mono, but it was recorded in stereo, we used the stereo. When Elvis Presley, the first RCA album came out, it had four Sun Records outtakes, or rejects on it.

One of them was Blue Moon, now known to be a masterpiece, even if it wasn't intended.

Crawdaddy!: At the beginning of the digital age, some of the Elvis master tapes were almost beyond saving. Do you know anything about that? Do you know how were those tapes were saved and restored?

Ernst Jorgensen: The problem goes back to the time where people didn't know what the masters were. The only ones in jeopardy were from the mid-'70s. The tapes were of poor quality and stuck to the tape machine. One tape from the EP Christmas album had to be baked, but we had tapes that were one or two generations earlier than that. In the '80s, a lot of tapes disappeared from RCA. I had to go and buy them back from people who had 'borrowed' them. Elvis tapes grew legs very quickly. The Christmas Album tapes were cut at Radial Recorders in Hollywood. The engineer had three tape recorders running all the time and still had originals of stuff from the '50s and '60s. I made a deal with him and got them. They were in perfect shape and included Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, and Elvis' Christmas Album.

In 1959, RCA threw out thousands of tapes from their artists, including Elvis. Usually session outtakes and rarities, but some masters as well. They did it to save cost and warehouse space. RCA never got the session tapes from the movies. Almost all the masters are in good shape and sound fantastic.

The challenge is to get equipment to play it on, so it sounds as close to the way it was recorded. Bob Ferris, who did the first sessions for RCA, didn't align the tape properly, so the tapes from that session can't be played back straight without adjusting the settings. Maybe he was sloppy or the tape machine had damaged tape heads, but that's the tricky part of playing and restoring them.

Crawdaddy!: Recently it's come out that Elvis often produced himself. Can you tell us about this?

Ernst Jorgensen: Sam Phillips helped out, but EP knew what he wanted and did produce himself. It's remarkable, because when you recorded in '55 and '56, you didn't produce your own records.

Later on, he hired Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller [who wrote Hound Dog] to produce a few sessions for him. They got on so well, Colonel Parker had to get rid of them.

RCA and Parker were jealous of the people working with Elvis, and Parker called the shots.

Crawdaddy!: Do you have any ideas about how much Elvis stuff might be lost in the vaults? Are there any known lost sessions that you're looking for? A Holy Grail session like the rumored missing tape from the Million Dollar Quartet? (On Tuesday December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash were visiting the Sun Record Studios in Memphis. Carl Perkins was recording with the help of a then-unknown piano player named Jerry Lee Lewis. Presley and Cash sat in and they started jamming on a collection of folk, gospel, country, and current Presley hits. Sam Phillips left the tapes rolling and captured about an hour's worth of ragged music making.)

Ernst Jorgensen: Those [Million Dollar Quartet] recordings are not part of this box set, but there are no missing parts to those sessions. Everything that was recorded that day is on the Complete Million Dollar Session CD. Johnny Cash said he recalled singing some songs that are not on that CD, but when you play the three tapes [sequentially], everything fits together perfectly. You can hear Elvis come in on tape one and leave at the end of tape three. It's a myth that there is anything else out there [from those sessions]. Cash must have remembered incorrectly. Click here to read Kris Kristofferson seriously contracticting both Johnny and June Carter Cash and this brings into serious doubt how much we should take for fact what they say.

I am still dreaming of tapes that he made on The Louisiana Hayride, before he was famous. I know he did the Platters' Only You and [Tennessee Ernie Ford's] 16 Tons, but we haven't found recordings of them yet. If you'd asked me in the '80s if I thought we'd be able to track down his first Sun sessions, the ones he financed by himself, I wouldn't have believed it was possible, but we did, so no one knows where the next unknown thing will come from. I don't think we'll find anything new from when he was famous, unless it's a tape of him sitting around and playing at home. I'm pretty sure we have all his private home recordings. [Elvis Presley Home Recordings was released in 1999.] Elvis liked playing for himself and his friends at home, so with those tapes you have an idea of what an evening with Elvis was like. He'd hammer out gospel, blues, country, and rock songs on the piano. He was a musician without discrimination. He loved all kinds of music. He even listened to Mario Lanza and Caruso when he was young, but we haven't discovered anything with him singing opera yet.

Ernst Jorgensen and Roger Semon
Ernst Jorgensen and Roger Semon.

MR: This year, you also worked on the Elvis Presley On Stage Legacy Edition, right?

Ernst Jorgensen: Yes, and last year we did From Elvis In Memphis, and we are working on getting another bunch of Elvis' artistically best albums available in deluxe versions for the future. Elvis was an artist who made his commercial breakthrough in America, and definitely later in Europe by ways of singles, and singles in those days were not on albums. Heartbreak Hotel was not on Elvis' first album, where you could argue today it would have belonged, and It's Now Or Never was not on Elvis Is Back!, the album he cut just after he got out of the army. The thing with Elvis that is truly interesting is that in the mid-'60s, where Elvis basically only recorded soundtrack albums, RCA kept releasing singles that weren't from soundtrack recordings. That was what got me interested in Elvis--suddenly there would be this recording and you'd say, 'Wow, that's very different'.

A good example of that would be Ain't That Loving You or Tell Me Why from the mid-'60s, and it turned out that these were just recordings that were never released in the '50s, taken out of the vault in the mid-'60s and launched on records almost ten years after they were recorded.

Same story on Crying In The Chapel, which was recorded for Elvis' '60 gospel album His Hand In Mine, but because of a copyright issue, it was left off the album. Five years later, when RCA didn't know what to release, they thought, 'Well, we can release this leftover we have Crying In The Chapel for Easter, and we should get some radio attention because it's Easter'. They didn't know that they had a number three U.S. hit and a number one U.K. hit just sitting there in the vault for five years.

MR: Those are great stories, and when you come across these tracks, are you always shocked that, well, 'interesting' tracks like Crying In The Chapel, became big hits?

Ernst Jorgensen: I don't know. That's a very good question. It had been kind of a pop hit back in '53, but that Elvis in the midst of The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, and The Beach Boys, could have a world wide top hit with a religious song was surprising, and I don't think anybody anticipated that. I don't think RCA or Elvis anticipated that--it was just a miracle that happened. It could be that the record is actually very good.

MR: Okay, it's just not one of my personal favourites I guess.

Speaking of personal favourites, what is one of your favourite Elvis recordings?

Ernst Jorgensen: One of my favourites would be Elvis' first commercial record, That's All Right, Mama.

MR: Let's talk about Suspicious Minds and those Memphis sessions. This batch of recordings are some of the most beloved Elvis tracks of all time. What is the historical importance of these recordings?

Ernst Jorgensen: Well, there were changes at that time--Elvis had just come off a very successful television special. Remember, in '67, his commercial career was going down the drain, and to some extent, his artistic career was doing the same. He does the comeback special that is aired in the U.S. on December 3rd, '68, and shortly after that, he seems totally committed to try and make new records that are different and more meaningful than what he had been doing for all those movies. He goes to American studio in Memphis--Chips Moman ran that studio, and had a house band that was fabulous. Elvis went down there to start recording in new surroundings, something that always fired Elvis up because he was very competitive in his own mind, and he wanted to impress all these new musicians. So, the dedication from Elvis is far above the level of some other sessions that he did, and on top of that, there were some magical songs going into it.

You can argue that the true achievement of the sessions is not found in those massive hits like In The Ghetto, Kentucky Rain, Suspicious Minds, and Don't Cry Daddy, but in the recordings he did of old country songs and old R&B songs that are just as magical. It was just a matter of all the right people at the right time and a dedication on Elvis' side that is not without comparison in his career.

I think the success of that television special was, in principle, Elvis doing what he once did. It's a very retro kind of television special, singing old rock 'n' roll songs, and now it was time to take that into a modern world. Even if somebody had written Suspicious Minds today, people would think it was a contemporary song. It's one of these songs that has a feel to it and a lyric that makes it timeless, and, in many ways, so does In The Ghetto.

MR: Right. That's another song that, although it's not the most covered song by Elvis, it's one of the most revered, isn't it?

Ernst Jorgensen: Yeah, there are certain songs that people, I think out of respect or maybe they think they can't do it better, don't cover because it's so much Elvis' song. You don't get too many cover versions of Are You Lonesome Tonight? either because that's a difficult place to go, and I think that's what separates In The Ghetto from Suspicious Minds. Suspicious Minds is also a tune that you can maybe put into a rock band and it would fit--a modern rock band could get away with playing it and still make it contemporary by '10 standards, I think.

MR: I've heard covers of that. It's funny that we're talking about this because I never really considered the fact that Elvis is uncoverable.

Ernst Jorgensen: In some ways, yes, but there is a little irony in this little story in that Elvis wasn't the first to record Always On My Mind, but he did and it's become an Elvis classic--it was actually the b-side of Separate Ways, so it wasn't a hit, and it was covered by Willie Nelson, whose version became a monstrous hit. So, you can cover him, but early Elvis is hard to cover and get away with. When he started playing live in '69 and '70, he did, sometimes, wonderful versions of his own songs that didn't sound anything like when he recorded them back when he was young. Nobody managed to get that airy, breezy magic of That's All Right or All Shook Up.

Ernst Jorgensen: Well, he lives in our minds for everything he did for music. He lives in the minds of those musicians who took over from him. You get people like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and U2--everybody somehow relates to those early Elvis recordings, and they meant something in their personal lives, and subsequently, he became an inspiration for their professional lives.

MR: Ernst, during the army years how did they handle the recording process? Was he just on hold?

Ernst Jorgensen: He was totally on hold, but they had saved enough to keep releasing singles while he was away. There were several mega-hits that came out while Elvis was in the army. The first thing was Wear My Ring Around Your Neck, but Hard Headed Woman, One Night, I Need Your Love Tonight, and A Big Hunk O' Love were in the can, so they could be released while he was away.

They didn't have enough to release anything other than the King Creole album as a new album, but remember that we were in the singles market in the '50s--the album market was just starting to develop. While he was away, he gave RCA the opportunity to collect all the material that wasn't available on albums before and put them into albums. So, there were the Elvis Golden Records One and Elvis Golden Records Volume Two, A Date With Elvis, and For Elvis Fans Only, where people who had now started buying LPs could get all these tracks that were previously only available as singles.

MR: Was the Moody Blue album a compilation of leftover tracks or was he working on an album before he passed away?

Ernst Jorgensen: That was the album that Elvis' producer, Felton Jarvis, put together before Elvis died, and it was meant to be a regular album. There was a problem, though, that Elvis had, to some extent, lost his appetite for recording, so they didn't have a full album's worth of material. So Felton, in the spring of '77--literally just a few months before Elvis died--would bring a tape recorder out on tour and convince Elvis to sing a few songs live on stage that he hadn't recorded so he would get enough material to fill out the album. The most famous of those songs is Elvis' version of Unchained Melody, which was captured during a show on tour in April. You're almost right in that there is a compilation element to it because Elvis hadn't recorded enough for a full studio album.

Ernst Jorgensen: Well, I've enjoyed this, so anytime you want to go back, we'll get on the phone again.

Interview by Mike Ragogna - Radio Personality on Solar-Powered KRUU-FM.

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Elvis Presley Video Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD

Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever. + Plus Bonus DVD Audio.

This is an excellent release no fan should be without it.

The 'parade' footage is good to see as it puts you in the right context with color and b&w footage. The interviews of Elvis' Parents are well worth hearing too. The afternoon show footage is wonderful and electrifying : Here is Elvis in his prime rocking and rolling in front of 11.000 people. Highly recommended.

Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD Video with Sound.