FOLLOWS HIS DREAM
By Ken Sharp
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.
From his highly praised work on the loving restoration of Elvis’ entire catalog to his studied expertise co-producing the definitive career box sets, The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Complete 50’s Masters, From Nashville to Memphis: The Essential 60’s Masters, Walk a Mile in My Shoes: The Essential 70’s Masters, Elvis: Live In Las Vegas, Elvis: Close Up, Platinum: A Life in Music, and recent global blockbusters, Elvis: 30 # 1 Hits, and 2nd To None, Jorgensen, along with partner Roger Semon, has been the true keeper of Elvis’ musical legacy. Jorgensen, Grammy nominated reissue producer, dedicated archivist, seasoned researcher and acclaimed author (Elvis Day By Day, Elvis: A Life in Music) has dedicated his life’s work to the careful preservation, graceful restoration and crafty revitalization of Elvis Presley’s musical output.
Since the Nineties, Jorgensen has meticulously treated Elvis’ musical legacy with immense care, respect, scholarly integrity and historical perspective and insight. He’s also proven to be a wily detective as well, unearthing treasure trove after treasure trove of released and unreleased Elvis recordings. Elvis couldn’t have a better champion in his corner than Ernst. Quite simply he has set the bar for how one should protect, maintain and nurture an artist’s catalog.
Having recently overseen the Elvis: # 1 Singles box, and continually producing an array of officially sanctioned Elvis projects for Sony/BMG, Ernst also runs the celebrated Follow That Dream (FTD) label, which issues a remarkable series of Presley live recordings, outtakes and deluxe album and soundtrack reissues. He is also working on an exciting new endeavor for Presley acolytes, a book chronicling Elvis’ seminal Sun Records career. We spoke with Ernst who offered illuminating insight behind the landmark music of Elvis Presley.
How did you first come to hear Elvis’ music?
I heard him when I was very young. But it didn’t really register with me until like 1961 when I heard “Little Sister” on the radio and thought that was pretty cool. I started buying records by Elvis and other artists. I think where my interest in Elvis became much more was around ‘65, ’66, ’67. That’s when I got so curious about why every other Elvis album wasn’t very satisfying and then between there would be great records. I thought that was really weird. Then I started investigating Elvis’ music and, as you know, I’ve been investigating ever since (laughs). I normally use the simple example of ‘How do you explain that Elvis’ recording of “Old MacDonald” came out at the same time of his recording of “Big Boss Man”? How do you get these two to be part of the same artistic development? That was hard to understand for a fairly naïve young guy.
When you listen to session tapes of Elvis singing a throwaway song like “Do The Clam” to something more meaty like his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” could you sense Elvis put his heart more into the “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” material or was he plainly just a professional who attacked the material with as much passion as he could muster?
Well, not all the in between banter was on the session tapes. The engineer would often stop and start tape machines so you wouldn’t know in all cases what Elvis’ dialogue is. But I think it’s fair to say it shows at the recording sessions the way he’s performing and in between takes whether he liked the song or not. Whether that shows in the final recording is subjective but on most of the recordings he did a professional job. Dylan’s song was done in a couple of takes. But there were songs where you hear him just enjoying himself and where it does show in the final performance. “Too Much Monkey Business” is a good example of that. That session in January of ’68 is not a happy session for Elvis. Songs are not there, and I think there’s some debate over the whole issue of recording, but you can hear it on the outtakes of “Too Much Monkey Business” that Elvis is having a ball recording it.
Your work as a reissue producer and archivist is impeccable. No one besides you and your partner, Roger Semon has ever approached Elvis’ music in such a studied and respectful manner.
I’m not sure that’s completely true but I know what you’re saying. Remember the review by Peter Guralnick in Rolling Stone of From Elvis in Memphis. That’s a review that really goes beyond the surface and digs into the real nature of the record. That was very educational writing. To me, here was a guy who by writing a review of a record made you so desperately want to hear it.
Remember at the time, the media in the Sixties and early Seventies considered Elvis old hat in a way. Whether he was successful or not, he was part of an earlier generation. Everybody liked to be an intellectual in those days and Elvis maybe didn’t fit into that. Elvis had a lot of critics saying, “Why don’t you do a rock and roll album?” First of all, the guy was in his mid to late thirties. Is rock and roll the same thing to you when you’re a grown-up? I don’t think so.
Working on the Elvis catalog for Sony/BMG and the series of FTD (Follow That Dream) limited edition releases of Elvis material, the live soundboards, outtakes, deluxe album and movie soundtrack reissues, you’ve had to become a real detective in terms of tracking down material in and outside of RCA’s vaults.
I loved detective books when I was a kid so that’s where my interest and passion lies. At the same time, I studied history at the University of Copenhagen, so I was always curious of what was behind anything, whether it was political, musical or anything else. I think that may have come through the school system of always being told to find out what was behind what people said and did. And it was made further intriguing to me when I was old enough to start having those kinds of considerations. We were in the mid to late Sixties and on everybody else’s records, you could see who was playing and where it was recorded. I simply got intrigued by the mystery of it all because none of that info was included with the Elvis records. Quite frankly at the time, I listened more to the Doors first album than I did Elvis’ Double Trouble album, I can assure you that. I still prefer the Doors album to Double Trouble (laughs).
Early on, my friends and I found out that we actually knew more about Elvis’ recordings than most people did. Then it took on its own life. This helped create an inner drive to keep going to find out more because I already knew more than most.
Here’s a hypothetical question. Elvis very rarely gave interviews during his lifetime. If you had an hour with Elvis today, what would you ask him?
That’s difficult because it would have depended on when I met him. Had I met him when I was the closest, which was in ’76, I would have asked the same questions that everybody else would have asked, because I wasn’t smarter than anybody else, not then, not now. I would have asked, “Why don’t you do a blues album? “Why don’t you record this song?” “Why don’t you record with these musicians?” And obviously I would have been on the wrong foot with Elvis from the start. I’m doing this book on Elvis’ Sun career; what I would have asked him today was which songs he recorded back then that we don’t know of and which songs he sang live onstage that he never recorded. Like everybody else I would have loved to have been Elvis’ closest friend in relation to music discussing which songs to record, which musicians to use and where to record them. You can dream but that never would have happened. He would have been far more advanced in his musical development than any of the rest of us who were going to try and catch up with him.
What can you tell us about your Sun Records project?
The important element about Sun is what he musically created in combining all the music he knew from his past into a form very easily explained by listening to “That’s All Right, Mama.” Nothing sounded like that before or for that matter even after. That is the magic of it. You see creation happening before your eyes in that eighteen-month period he was with Sun going from “That’s All Right” to the ballads he did on the first session. It’s always intriguing to see a star being born. That is the fascination of the Sun period. The other fascination of it is it’s probably the only period of Elvis’ career that hasn’t been documented to death, especially from a photo and fact point of view. If you take the calendar concept that Peter (Guralnick) and I did on our book, Day by Day, and expand it dramatically finding missing elements, coming up with additional stories. More than anything, we’ve found hundreds of photos that people have never seen that puts Elvis in a different light. It’s principally a deluxe book with brilliant printing. There will be a lot of rare stuff and obviously there will be some element of music to it. But the driving element is the stories told and the photos shown in the book. There will be CDs and they will summarize that period. But a lot of that material is available already, so it won’t be a ton of great rarities. There will be a few things to listen to that people haven’t heard before but nothing shocking or revealing, at least what we’ve found yet.
Any plans on a release date?
When it’s finished, yeah, absolutely (laughs). Was that vague enough? It will start off as a Follow That Dream (FTD) book project like Rockin’ Across Texas, Flashback or The Way It Was that we’ve already done.
When Elvis talked about the Sun music on stage in the late Sixties, he’d remark that it sounded “weird” to him. Elvis didn’t understand the greatness of his Sun Records period.
Don’t take Elvis’ self-ridicule seriously. He always had that element of charming self-mockery. At an early stage Elvis said that he stumbled across his style, but I don’t buy that. Obviously, he might have preferred to be a ballad singer, but this musicality was in him and he could do it. The minute he found it he knew not to let it go. Like any other artist, you look back at your career and you feel a little embarrassed about the simplicity of your earlier work. I don’t think he necessarily felt that these were bad records. He sang “That’s All Right, Mama” a lot on stage in the Seventies. He did “Trying to Get to You” in his later career. He sang “Baby Let’s Playhouse” on the rehearsal part for the film, That’s the Way It Is. He was having fun with that. He never sang “Good Luck Charm” or “Devil in Disguise” and very rarely “Return to Sender.” He never sang “If I Can Dream” or “Always on My Mind” onstage. The point is an artist has a personal relationship with his songs that is obviously different than your take and mine on something like “Good Luck Charm.” Some songs he chose to sing because he loved to sing them and some, he’d get bored with. The artist will pick whatever they like themselves. I don’t know that “I Just Called to Say That I Love You” is Stevie Wonder’s greatest favorite of his own but millions bought it. There’s always that distance between the artist and the audience in that you record it and either people like it or they don’t like it irrespective of whether you do yourself.
An example would be “Burning Love,” it was one of Elvis’ biggest latter-day hits but one he reportedly did not enjoy and didn’t perform often.
A reverse example easily could be, Elvis loved the song “I’m Leaving” and you can hear that while he’s recording it, but it didn’t become a hit. I agree with Elvis and think it’s one hell of a song and he loved to perform it live.
Back in the mid Seventies, the first person inside Elvis’ inner circle you connected with was his late producer, Felton Jarvis.
I was awestruck. My only hope that he would talk to me was two years earlier he corresponded with me through his wife, Mary. I had written him a long letter about Elvis recording sessions. I got back a long letter from him and Mary with all the details I wanted including all the songs for the Promised Land album that weren’t even released yet. As a person, he was such a nice man, incredibly helpful and as enthusiastic as any of us who really appreciated Elvis’ music. He’d just done these sessions down at Graceland and he couldn’t stop talking about the recording of “Danny Boy”. He was kind enough to invite my wife and I down for some mixing sessions for the From Elvis Presley Boulevard album, which unfortunately we couldn’t make. He died fairly young, but I maintained a relationship with his wife Mary all through the rest of her life. She was the same heartwarming, helpful and intelligent person.
How do you view your role in the preservation of Elvis’ recorded legacy?
That’s a very difficult question and I’ll be doing a bit of hat swapping here. If we look at the main label, the Sony/BMG label, what we did in the Nineties was restore the original material to CD for the separate releases and the box sets. In my mind I call the Nineties “the historical period.” The great successes of this decade have been # 1 Hits, 2nd To None, Elvis By the Presleys, the Love Songs compilations, the Gospel compilations. It’s not the historical element which is driving the main label. And it shouldn’t be because we’ve been there, and we’ve done it. We need to attract new people as main customers by making different types of albums.
And you succeeded with the chart topping “A Little Less Conversation”.
That was a little bit of a miracle. You can’t plan on things like that. It happened because JXL’s remix was a fantastic record and it had all the right elements of promotion to go with it. It’s not something you can just go in and make a carbon copy of. I take that totally outside of the regular work with the catalog. The only thing I had to do with that is I found the acetate of “A Little Less Conversation” that was used for it. It’s not the real movie recording, it’s a different version. But that’s the difference between the Nineties and the early part of the 21st Century. But if you go back to the Follow That Dream (FTD) label you’re back in the historical division of releasing soundboard recordings from as many tours and Vegas engagements to document that part of history. It’s also a question of releasing the original albums in deluxe form so they will be available forever since retail will never be able to carry an Elvis catalog of sixty original albums and all then all the compilations on top of that. There’s no way we can get that into record shops anymore.
The FTD label does more than release soundboard live recordings and reissues. There have also been exceptional releases with outtakes and alternate versions.
The Follow That Dream label is basically for the real collector. That’s why we don’t sell it at retail. It’s sold through fan club and mail order situations. If you don’t have the complete Elvis collection in the first place, why would you want to listen to outtakes and goofing around and the somewhat inferior quality of the soundboards? It is rarities for collectors. One of our first releases was based on outtakes from Elvis’ session at The Jungle Room in Graceland. These were recorded in his house. They did not have the overdubs that were on the real records, so they had a much more naked sound. People loved the idea and they felt much better about those ’76 recordings than they did on the original album. We’ve also tried to make them thematically with movie songs. We’ve done a very successful one called Memphis Sessions that has outtakes from that. It’s all based on a rarity driven concept. We release the soundboard live shows to basically demonstrate how Elvis’ career developed during the Seventies through his concert tours and Vegas stays. On top of that we create books where we bring together stories, photos, and music that makes a uniform picture like The Way It Was. That book was rarity material from the film, That’s the Way It Is and included over a hundred thirty pictures to help support the story. We’re not really limited in the Follow That Dream thing because we’re not selling a lot and we don’t need to sell a lot. We sell a lot of the Sony/BMG releases. With the Follow That Dream releases we try and aim as precisely as we can at the completist. Those who want to have everything. But that doesn’t mean that other people wouldn’t get a great kick out of listening to some of those releases. I would recommend the outtakes albums more than the soundboards because if you’re just an average consumer you’re going to think that the sound on the soundboards is a bit dull.
Tell us about Loving You, the latest FTD release.
Last year for Sony/BMG, we upgraded a much-improved sounding version of the album and reinstalled it into the catalog with bonus songs. But for Follow That Dream we go beyond that. There are more tracks. We found some better tapes that even had a handful of alternate takes that nobody’s ever heard before. Disc two includes all the tapes of “Loving You” that Elvis recorded. As he worked on the movie soundtrack it gives people a good idea how Elvis worked in the studio. They can follow the progress of the material from the first to the last takes.
Elvis was the producer of his sessions.
Steve Sholes was never listed as Elvis’ producer. But he was RCA’s liaison. Steve wasn’t a producer per se. He was there to help things happen and also to oversee the commercial aspects of releasing the records. When Elvis left Sam Phillips, he was basically on his own. There were situations where he had a lot of help in the studio like with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller or Felton Jarvis, but at the end of the day it was what Elvis wanted that counted. I remember Leiber and Stoller saying that after a number of takes on a song they felt they had it, but Elvis decided they could do better. They kept going until Elvis was satisfied, not until Leiber and Stoller were.
Just recently Sony/BMG issued an Elvis: # 1 Singles box set.
Consumers are going to find a very nice box with the replicas of the original singles. There’s 20 CDs in there of his number one records. They have the original front and back covers. Singles sales these days are nowhere to what they were. We re-released a single of “Heartbreak Hotel” on the 50th anniversary of its release and it went straight to number one on the sales charts. But people don’t look at sales charts anymore. It’s all about radio charts. That’s what you read in Billboard and it’s all for good reason because singles sales are down. It’s a little sentimental to see Elvis back on top of the charts fifty years later with “Heartbreak Hotel.” But what you get in the box is a wonderful piece of memorabilia that can play. That’s not so bad.
Detail the detective work you’ve had to execute for Sony/BMG and your FTD releases to locate Elvis released and unreleased material.
In the early Nineties, I got to know exactly what tapes were in the RCA vaults. And that is still the most fascinating story because nobody knew. There were two things they didn’t know. They didn’t know what they had, and they didn’t know what they had lost. So, when we eventually established what they had we went in to examine what was lost. There was a guy named Bruce Hailstalk who ran the tape vault, and he was the keeper of the vault in New York. There were vaults in other places, in Nashville, in Indianapolis and in Los Angeles. He was one of those people who kept everything. He had shipping paperwork going way back. He was the one who had to break the news to me that in 1959 the president of RCA Records thought he’d save some money on warehouse spending so he dumped literally ten thousand tapes including the tapes with the outtakes of most of Elvis’ Fifties repertoire and even some of the masters. Just to save a buck. That was one headache. Another thing I did with Bruce, even after he left, was to meticulously go over and find every trace of paperwork about tapes that were once at the company but no longer there. I’d try to find out when their paper trail stopped, which would indicate when it got lost and where it could have gotten lost. Sometimes you’d find some stuff at the other vaults. I also had to go outside of the company and find people who were involved at the time. Eventually you find people who knew something about somebody and some of the tapes would turn up again.
What were some exciting finds outside of the company’s vaults?
The first-generation master tape of “Heartbreak Hotel,” the outtakes for the Elvis Is Back album, the outtakes for the Viva Las Vegas soundtrack were some of those that were fantastic finds. But the other thing was there were tapes that never seemed to have landed at RCA.
There were certain Sixties soundtracks where we only received the master, and somebody forgot to send us the outtakes. We had to go back to the movie companies and in some cases, we were successful, and they had two sets instead of the one that they naturally would have had. There were other movies where so far, we haven’t found those reels like Roustabout. Had we had the tapes we would have had the other version of “Roustabout” that we put on 2nd To None. What we have on 2nd To None is derived from an acetate, not from a tape. It was originally called “Roustabout” because it was the original title song, but Hal Wallis, the head of the movie studio didn’t like it, so they commissioned a new song to be written under the same title. When we released it, to differentiate it from the two, we changed the title to “I’m A Roustabout.” We found the Fun in Acapulco soundtrack tape under some strange numbers and a few of the others. What was more charming was on some tapes where we thought we knew what was on them; suddenly in the middle of it you’d have Elvis jamming away on “I Can’t Stop Loving You” in 1969 at the Memphis sessions that produced “In the Ghetto.” That was unmarked. You sit here and go through take after take and suddenly the tape goes in a completely different way. There’s a great story that apparently at a session they were running out of tape and they turned the tape around. Nobody ever checked what was on it going backwards. That’s where we found Flatts & Scruggs’ “A Hundred Years from Now” done as a jam by Elvis. Then during the same dates, we were sitting there listening to what was supposed to be Elvis recording “Tomorrow Never Comes” and he started it up and sings the first two lines of “Running Scared” by Roy Orbison. Just for that split second, we thought, “Oh my God, we’ve found Elvis singing “Running Scared!” Then the tape cuts it off and you almost died!
A lot of people not familiar with Elvis’ music believe it begins and ends in the Fifties, that what followed in the Sixties and Seventies was sub-par. But that’s not true.
The decade issue is very understandable along the lines with how you described it. If you don’t care for an artist like that then you may have a simplistic view of it. If you want to look into the Fifties, Elvis started making records on Sun and nothing sounded really the same when he came to RCA. He changed styles and created, with a number of people, what we know as rock and roll. Rock and roll could be anything from Chuck Berry’s tales of teenage life to Little Richard stomping ahead and Elvis’ “Hound Dog.” But Elvis wanted to be a ballad singer. By the way he also recorded gospel music, just to give an idea of the complexity of what Elvis did in the Fifties. In the Sixties you can look at the movies and disregard them. But remember when you disregard them you ignore at least three songs that everybody knows. The world’s most famous love song, “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, is a movie song. “Return to Sender,” just about everybody knows and that’s a movie song. Most people also know “Viva Las Vegas” and that too is a movie song. But at the same time, he did R&B, he did country, he did gospel, all through the Sixties. The box set, From Nashville to Memphis, is a fantastic overview of what he did in the Sixties. The only thing that’s not on there is his gospel and Christmas music. If you add that to it, it becomes even more staggering.
In the Seventies, Elvis had two parallel careers. There was the studio side and then there were the live performances. Especially when we get to the Seventies nobody’s even questioning Elvis’ right to do whatever he wants anymore. That’s exactly what he does. The Vegas show is everything, from R&B to pop to almost operatic singing to gospel. To accept Elvis’ own musical vision in the Seventies rather than come up with what he should have done if he’d have been the singer in Eric Clapton’s band, you can get to appreciate the Seventies music. I think it peaked with the movie, That’s the Way It Is. But it certainly was brilliant when he started up in ’69 and there was brilliance after that as well. We all know that he got sick and he died, and it took its toll on his health in the later years. There were bad shows, there were not so good shows but there were still great shows in between.
As for unreleased material being released, some speculate Elvis may not have liked material he didn’t approve to come out, yet he did approve of some releases while he was still alive like the Legendary Performer series which did included unissued material, unreleased live performances, etc.
We could never know exactly what he felt about it. He accepted it when they released “One Night” in 1958 because he didn’t think that should be released. Obviously when you get to an album like Elvis For Everyone in 1965, that’s put together from leftovers going all the way back to Sun. I think he didn’t have that view of albums and releasing records that came with the beat generation. That’s why it becomes absolutely crazy when you want to compare The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan with the kind of artist Elvis was. It makes sense in the way that you understand the differences. But the differences are enormous. Elvis didn’t write his own songs. He was a singer; the others were songwriters who sang, not because they were the best singers in the world. But they had a very legit reason to sing and they wrote the songs themselves.
Did Elvis have a favorite album, and do you know if he would ever listen to his own music?
We know from books written by people who really knew him that it wasn’t popular if you went to a party at the Presley house to put one of Elvis’ records on the jukebox. Elvis didn’t appreciate that. Artists will always have a different view on the music than for us who love it and buy it. They may have pride. I’m sure Elvis was proud of “How Great Thou Art.”
Can you comment on some of Elvis lesser appreciated material starting with “(You’re The) Devil in Disguise?”
That was a great record. In my little home country that song was number one for thirteen weeks, which was incredible. It was potentially the biggest chart hit he ever had here. But again, if you put yourself in Elvis’ place in 1970, in song structure and in lyric it was a dated song. I don’t think it would have been tempting for him to perform it. LeAnn Rimes and Chris Isaak did a very very good version of it on the Elvis Lives TV special. A lot of Fifties and Sixties songs would seem somewhat immature by the songwriting standards of the Seventies. It was from another era, a more simplistic time. It’s a good point you raise here. You have a band that plays in a certain way to a certain type of audience and maybe the transparent beauty of some of those recordings was difficult to duplicate. Personally, I will say that Elvis may have sung “All Shook Up” from 1968 and through the rest of his life but never in any live version did he come anywhere close to the magic of that original recording. There are other songs that he performed live that he did better than the studio versions. For example, Elvis’ version of Roberta Flack’s big hit, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” the Ewan MacColl song. The studio version is very stiff. I’m not saying his live version can compare with Roberta Flack’s but it’s more charming and more elegant than the studio version.
Some of Elvis’ late Sixties, early Seventies material found him exploring new directions. “Don’t Cry Daddy” was a huge hit that also took on a personal meaning for Elvis.
“Don’t Cry Daddy” was a million seller throughout the world. It came on the hot streak of “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds” as the third Memphis single. To me it was a very sentimental song. It was written by Mac Davis who had actually submitted more songs for those sessions that were just as sentimental, and Elvis chose not to record them. I think it’s a balance with “Don’t Cry Daddy.” It’s a little like “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” The lyrics are so sentimental that only a truly great singer will get away with singing them without getting too sugary or too overblown. It’s certainly not one of my favorites but it’s beautifully sung and it’s a very sincere and well-crafted song. That’s where Elvis excelled. He could take songs that nobody else would get away with and make them believable.
Another solid late Sixties track, “Edge of Reality” is memorable for its dramatic and evocative sound, cinemascope orchestral arrangement sound and Jimmy Webb inspired songwriting.
This is the short period where Billy Strange got involved with arranging and A&R-ing a few sessions on Elvis. This song has a written arrangement and it’s obviously a long way from rock and roll or anything Elvis had done. You can say it sounds like Jimmy Webb and that it’s hip or you can also make fun of it and say it’s the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s “Canyons Of Your Mind,” those type of lyrics that we had in the late Sixties. “Edge of Reality” was a hit in Australia or somewhere else. The song is very different. It was also something in writing style and arrangement that Elvis abandoned as quickly as he embraced it. Elvis tried to do a Brazilian style of music on “Almost in Love” and on the movie soundtrack for Live A Little, Love A Little, which includes “A Little Less Conversation,” the songs were very different. He was searching for a style. I think Billy Strange, with his background of working with Nancy Sinatra and others, was trying to produce Elvis. You could argue that Elvis almost jammed all his records. Nobody came prepared but Elvis and the musicians just started trying out how to do the song on the spot. Billy was working with a lot of the artists who were successful in that period, acts like The Association and The Fifth Dimension whose songs were much more arranged than what rock groups were doing at the time.
“The Next Step Is Love” found Elvis branching out artistically once again. The song sports a circular Beatlesque melody and the use of a mellotron a la “Strawberry Fields.”
I think it’s a song Tom Jones could have recorded. I like “The Next Step Is Love.” It is a little different for Elvis. You end up liking it a lot when you see That’s the Way It Is where you see Elvis and his band rehearsing it. It was not a very typical song for Elvis. It wasn’t a roots-based song deriving from a country, blues or gospel type of writing. I think to some extent it came in because the input to Elvis’ sessions was also partly up to Freddie Bienstock. He had started working in England with English songwriters for Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck and wanted to bring those types of songs into the Elvis repertoire. The song’s writer, Paul Evans, had written “I Gotta Know” which Elvis recorded back in 1960. So, he wasn’t part of that new generation of English writers. It was a song that was crafted as straight pop and most of Elvis’ repertoire wasn’t.
Elvis’ movie soundtracks from the Sixties are routinely written off as filler by many but there were some gems that deserve further investigation.
The Viva Las Vegas material is good. It was better than so many of the other soundtracks. It’s a shame that it wasn’t recorded in proper stereo. It’s recorded in this funny three track way of having Elvis on one channel, the backup singers on another one and then the whole band on another track. That band that’s playing on that material, especially the title song, is really cookin’ there. That’s a fantastic track. If I were to look for rare gems on the movie soundtracks of the Sixties I’d cite “Doin’ The Best I Can,” the doo-wop song that Elvis sings on G.I. Blues. It’s a fantastic recording. The lyric is full of self-pity, but he sings it incredibly well. But there are great songs on Girls, Girls, Girls. There are good songs on almost every soundtrack album but there are also bad songs on most of the soundtrack albums as well. The strongest Sixties soundtrack is Blue Hawaii, there’s nothing that even comes close.
It’s been said that said that Elvis did his best work when he was challenged. For example, the ’68 Comeback TV special or his initial return to performing in Las Vegas in 1969.
I think how long he lived has to do with the health he was in. You can’t sing, you can’t record on the same level as you can when you were feeling good. That’s the bottom line. Several of Elvis’ friends told me that Elvis got bored very easily and that’s part of the problem. But for an artist the challenge has to come from within.
Elvis’ late Sixties work with Chips Moman on the album, From Elvis To Memphis and the singles, “Suspicious Minds,” and “In the Ghetto” is considered among his best. Can you explain why he didn’t he do any further recording with Chips after the success of such songs?
Certainly, somebody within the Presley camp and Chip Moman’s had a falling out with each other. When From Elvis to Memphis first came out it didn’t get good reviews in spite of what everybody thinks. It got some fairly poor reviews in many places. It’s true that those singles were miracles and the album sold well. But the other thing that’s very important is to realize that Chips Moman didn’t think the sessions went well. He thought there was a lot of crap recorded during those sessions. He didn’t finish the album, Felton Jarvis did. Chips didn’t like the way the album turned out and he certainly hated “Suspicious Minds.” Not the idea of it or the early recordings but what they did to it. So, it’s a very complicated issue and since we can’t ask Elvis you’re not going to know. Also, you can’t have two A&R guys with different visions working with Elvis in the studio. Chips and Felton were not the same type of people. All of them felt there was a lot of compromise in those sessions and that made it unattractive to go back.
As an archivist and seasoned researcher, does much exist on Elvis in terms of unseen footage, photos and recordings?
Well, footage and photos, there is a lot out there that nobody has ever seen. But as for recordings, I don’t know, A few years ago nobody even knew that “I’m A Roustabout” had survived. So, there is certainly room for hope. There’s no reason to think that a lot of recordings are going to surface. There’s not a lot of recordings missing. But there is an enormous wealth of footage and photos out there. I know some of the collectors and what they have and its mind boggling.
Do you have your own personal holy grail for Elvis footage and recordings?
Yes. I’d like to find the audio outtakes from Elvis’ movies. Roustabout is an example. The most interesting thing to me would be to find recordings from the radio back in ’54 and ’55 when Elvis played on the (Louisiana) Hayride and he played all these songs he never recorded like The Platters “Only You,” Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Fool’s Hall Of Fame.” They haven’t surfaced and they may not exist, but they are very likely attic finds. Somebody taped them back then, didn’t think much of it, and put them in a box and they’re still there.
Have you located any good quality Elvis live shows from 1956 and 1957?
I’ve found ’56 shows that are passable and can be restored and are very enjoyable but not like a true professional live recording. Back then Elvis only played for about a half an hour. He’d play the hits and from time to time he’d throw in “Fool’s Hall of Fame”, which was rumored to be sung at a few shows. Elvis would also sometimes do “Blueberry Hill” sitting at the piano.
Are there any worthy books left to be written about Elvis?
The factual research that is for what Peter Guralnick and I have done and a number of other people, it comes to the point of “Do I need to know any more?” It’s always interesting to see a book written by someone who really knew Elvis. I know that Elvis’ long-time friend, Jerry Schilling, has written a book that’s coming out fairly soon. That will be interesting because Jerry really knew Elvis. Maybe some of those stories will be about the normality of his life as opposed to the sensational side. He’s someone who really knew Elvis and has a take on him personally.
Characterize what’s been your greatest challenge as an Elvis producer/archivist?
I think my greatest challenge was an element that we were facing when we started the whole Elvis program around 1990. It was to get Elvis reestablished as a significant and important artist and not just a stupid joke in The National Enquirer because there was a tendency in the media to treat him like that. I think fifteen years later that has been achieved. Today it’s very simple. The biggest of all pop records, I don’t think any of them in combined sales on greatest hits albums and singles sold a hundred million. But what are we, six, seven billion people today? I mean, every producer’s basic mission is about getting new people to listen and get as excited as you are.
Select a song or two that you’d like people to rediscover of Elvis.
It depends on who that person is because Elvis made so much different music. If you like roots music, it would be a shame if you never heard Elvis’ studio version of “Reconsider Baby.” And if you think that gospel music is not for you, you should definitely listen to Elvis doing “How Great Thou Art” just for the instrumentation and the sheer musical energy. If you haven’t heard Elvis singing Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” it’s a masterful version of a country song. It’s a combination of the blue from the blues and it’s country and it’s masterfully sung. There are all of these album tracks that you don’t find on the greatest hits compilations that you really miss. It would be easy to take every hit Elvis made and put it next to a lesser known track and everybody would go, “Yeah, that’s about as good as the hit record he made.” So, there is a lot for a lot of different tastes in Elvis’ music. I appreciate that problem but there’s so much Elvis music that it’s difficult for the regular fan who’s not a completist to figure out where to start. That is why putting out Elvis records today is more about thematic issues like a country album or a Christmas album because it’s an easier way of describing to people that this is Elvis and that might be the kind of music you like.
What’s your take on Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker?
The Colonel was a Master of Management. But I think like Elvis he faded in the later years. He wasn’t as sharp on what would be the right thing to do. But he also worked with an artist who got more and more out of control as we went through the Seventies. There’s a lot of little things and big things where you go, “I don’t think that was very smart.” Some is 20/20 hindsight, other decisions you may have even questioned at the time. How much do you want to know about The Colonel as a general person? If you really want to know, read (Peter) Guralnick’s books (Last Train to Memphis, Careless Love), the plot is there. There’s another side to it, which was, “Who was The Colonel?” and you’d have to talk to the people who knew him. There’s a lot of people who worked closely with The Colonel who didn’t know. Then there’s also lot of people who worked with him that adored him. He’s a complicated man like Elvis. To understand any person, especially if you want to make a judgment about him, to understand the Colonel, it’s a picture of so many nuances. You can argue would Elvis have ever become what he was without the Colonel? I say he might not have but he still might have been somebody. It’s very difficult to say because Elvis was a success weeks after he started on a small level and that small level kept growing. The Colonel was part of making it grow but he was only one of the people. Sam Phillips was responsible, Bob Neal (early Elvis manager) was responsible. Elvis, Scotty (Moore) and Bill (Black) developed it. D.J. Fontana helped to develop that when he joined the band. I think it’s fair to ask these simple questions but there are no simple answers.
This interview originally appeared in the UK magazine Record Collector.
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