Elvis HarumScarum bonus photo 1500 crop

from nashville to memphis with heaven in between

THE FIRST DELUXE ELVIS boxed compact-disc set was KING OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL – THE COMPLETE 50’s MASTERS, is­sued in 1992 to great fan­fare. It con­tained five discs that fea­tured the com­plete studio record­ings of Presley from 1954-1958. More than 100 record­ings in gen­uine, hon­est­ta­gawd mono seemed like a gift from Heaven!

The set also in­cluded an in­for­ma­tive booklet with an ac­cu­rate ses­sionog­raphy and an in­tel­li­gent bi­o­graph­ical essay. It was well-received by critics and fans and an im­me­diate hit with disc-buyers, quickly moving mil­lions of units around the world. 1

But you’d never know that by its ranking on Bill­board’s album chart, where it peaked at a lowly #159. 2

 

How does an album that went Plat­inum in its first four months of re­lease fail to make the Top 40 of Bill­board’s best-selling LPs chart?

 

De­spite this unim­pres­sive showing, two months after its re­lease THE KING OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL (RCA 66050-2) was cer­ti­fied gold by the RIAA and plat­inum three months later:

Au­gust 7, 1992            Gold Record Award
No­vember 20, 1992   Plat­inum Record Award 3

Ac­cording to Bill­board, al­bums are cur­rently ranked by “album sales, audio on-demand streaming ac­tivity, and dig­ital sales of tracks from al­bums.”

But in 1992, the survey was es­sen­tially based on the sales of phys­ical product, compact-discs.

So how did Bill­board tab­u­late sales to ar­rive at such rank­ings?

But first, some back­ground …

 

Heaven: KING OF ROCK 'N' ROLL boxed CD set.

This is how the orig­inal box looked: there were two stickers af­fixed to the shrinkwrap, one with a one-word blurb from Rolling Stone mag­a­zine, and other a list of what the cus­tomer would find in­side.

About those 158 gold records

So let’s look at the data again: THE KING OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL (ab­bre­vi­ated KORR from this point on) was re­leased in June 1992 and re­ceived RIAA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in Au­gust:

  A Gold Record Award re­quired sales of 500,000 units.
  KORR had five discs, so it counted as five units.
  KORR sold 100,000 copies in its first few weeks of re­lease.

THE KING OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL con­tinued selling and was cer­ti­fied plat­inum in Oc­tober:

  A Plat­inum Record Award re­quired sales of 1,000,000 units.
  KORR had five discs, so it counted as five units.
  KORR sold 200,000 copies in its first four months of re­lease.

Now let’s go back to the Bill­board album survey: KORR peaked at #159 and then slid slowly off the chart.

It’s dif­fi­cult to know what Bill­board used as a mea­sure of sales from year to year, as they don’t make this in­for­ma­tion avail­able. So I can pose two ques­tions here:

1. Did Bill­board count KORR as one unit (i.e., one-album-with-five-discs) and make it com­pete for ranking against sales of other single-disc al­bums?

2. Did Bill­board count KORR as five units and make it com­pete for ranking against single-disc al­bums counting as one unit?

 

Heaven: a copy of the Billboard 200 LP chart.

Chart rank­ings for singles—when they existed—were rea­son­ably ac­cu­rate be­cause the format had such a short lifespan. Rank­ings for al­bums are far less mean­ingful: an album that “fails” to reach the Top 100 can go on selling year after year, making money for everyone involved—which is the point of recording and man­u­fac­turing an album.

If this is so, then that follows

Being a (some­what) ra­tional person, I try to make as few as­sump­tions as pos­sible in life. Nonethe­less, here I seem to be forced to ar­rive at one of two if-then con­clu­sions about the in­for­ma­tion im­plied by the Bill­board album survey:

A. If Bill­board counted KORR as one unit (i.e., one album with five discs counts the same as one album with one disc), then most of the 158 al­bums listed ahead of KORR should have sold more than 100,000 copies each during the last six months of 1992.

B. If Bill­board counted KORR as five units, then most of the 158 al­bums listed ahead of KORR should have sold more than 500,000 copies each during the last six months of 1992.

Ei­ther way, 158 al­bums should have all out­sold KORR at the same time, oth­er­wise how ex­plain Bill­board ranking them ahead of the Presley box?

Of course, nothing like B hap­pened: 158 al­bums did not sell a half mil­lion each at the same time! Not then, not ever. But A was at least pos­sible: 158 al­bums could have sold 100,000 or more copies at the same time. Pos­sible, but highly un­likely.

 

Heaven: cover of ELVIS RECORDING SESSION book.

This is the third edi­tion of Ern­st’s book, and the most dif­fi­cult one to find on the used-book market. While it has been made a mere foot­note in the his­tory of ses­sionog­raphy, it was a very im­por­tant book at one time and used copies are sought after by col­lec­tors.

Did Ernst come from Heaven?

KORR was unique in ways that many people who bought it were un­aware: it was the first time that Pres­ley’s record­ings from the 1950s were is­sued dig­i­tally using ac­tual mono­phonic source tapes! Pre­vious CDs had used sources where the orig­inal mono signal had been al­tered or mod­i­fied in some fashion—and rarely in a manner that ac­tu­ally ben­e­fited the recording. 4

The person re­spon­sible for the overall ex­cel­lence of KORR—re­spon­sible for finding copies of Vic­tor’s mono tapes—was Ernst Jør­gensen. For­merly a well-known fan from Den­mark, RCA hired him as an archivist for their vast cat­alog of Elvis ma­te­rial.

The Presley cat­alog is­sued as vinyl LPs during the artist’s life was not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of ei­ther his overall suc­cess, not his con­sis­tency, not his growth—especially 1960-1969.

Since 1977, the stag­gering array of ‘new’ com­pi­la­tions of pre­vi­ously re­leased and un­re­leased ma­te­rial had only made mat­ters worse. The CD reissue pro­gram had been all over the place and was only be­gin­ning to get fo­cused under Gregg Geller in the ’80s.

KORR was Jør­gensen’s first major project and it was a labor of love. To find the nec­es­sary tapes, he had to travel around the world, searching through the nooks and cran­nies of old places where RCA or their af­fil­i­ates may have stored old tapes. 5

 

Elvis IsBack LSP

Re­leased in April 1960, ELVIS IS BACK was a tour de force of every­thing that the man could do on one 12-inch record: rock & roll, rhythm & blues, blues, country, gospel, and straight-ahead pop. He then sat out the decade as an artist of au­thority and did not record an­other non-gospel album of such quality until 1969.

From Memphis to Nashville

By mid-1992, Ernst was in the plan­ning stages of his second major project: an­other boxed set, this time fo­cusing on the ’60s. Finding quality source tapes was not an issue this time, but there was a BIG problem: RCA had lim­ited each box to about 110-120 sides. 6

Elvis had recorded far too much be­tween 1960 and 1969. Counting every­thing (studio and live), there were more than 400 sides from these years! So, a con­cept or theme had to be found for the ’60s box.

To pre­pare for this, Ernst was con­tacting knowl­edge­able people and sounding them out as to a pos­sible di­rec­tion for the set. I had a rather high pro­file in the Elvis com­mu­nity at the time, as I had au­thored two Elvis price guides of re­cent vin­tage.

I had also written a lengthy cover ar­ticle for Gold­mine mag­a­zine about Elvis in the ‘50s that acted as a re­view of THE KING OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL.

When Ernst con­tacted me via tele­phone, I was both sur­prised and flat­tered. As he and I were the same age and had un­der­gone sim­ilar ex­pe­ri­ences as Elvis fans in the ’60s, we hit it off im­me­di­ately.

We talked about all things Elvis be­fore Ernst got around the nitty-gritty. By this time, he had di­vided Pres­ley’s ’60s record­ings into sev­eral groups, which are rep­re­sented below:

Studio recordings (Nashville 1960-1968)

For this project, studio record­ings were de­fined as those tracks cut in the studio that was of a sec­ular (non-gospel) na­ture. Most of Pres­ley’s studio record­ings in the ’60s were cut at RCA’s Studio B in Nashville. There were 90 such record­ings be­tween 1960 and 1968, and they would be the foun­da­tion for the boxed set.

Gospel recordings (1960-1967)

Gospel record­ings were also studio record­ings but were treated sep­a­rately as they had a Chris­tian lyrical con­tent. The bulk of these tracks had been re­leased on the HIS HAND IN MINE album (1961) and the HOW GREAT THOU ART album (1967). There were 27 such record­ings, and they were among the tracks con­sid­ered for the box.

Soundtrack recordings (1960-1969)

Sound­track record­ings were tracks cut in the studio for in­clu­sion in one of the many movies that Presley made in the ’60s. There were more than 200 such record­ings, and they were never con­sid­ered for the box. 7

Live recordings (1960-1969)

While there wasn’t a large group of live record­ings, they were sig­nif­i­cant. They in­cluded Elvis on Frank Sina­tra’s 1960 tele­vi­sion spe­cial (two tracks), the USS Ari­zona charity con­cert in 1961 (one show), por­tions of the 1968 NBC-TV spe­cial, and the shows recorded in Las Vegas in 1969 (sev­eral shows). They were never con­sid­ered for the box.

NBC-TV recordings (1968)

The live per­for­mances and the pro­duc­tion num­bers for the 1968 NBC-TV spe­cial. At least seven LP records worth of ma­te­rial from this event had been re­leased as bootleg al­bums on the col­lec­tors market. They were never con­sid­ered for the box.

Studio recordings (Memphis 1969)

Those last studio record­ings of the decade were cut in Chips Mo­man’s Amer­ican Sound Studio in Mem­phis in Jan­uary and Feb­ruary 1969. There were more than 30 such record­ings, and they were among the tracks con­sid­ered for the box.

Fi­nally, Elvis was al­ways singing at home, alone and with friends. Tape record­ings exist, but they were never among the tracks con­sid­ered for the box—except as bonus tracks.

 

Heaven: front cover of ELVIS' GREATEST SHIT bootleg LP album.

Heaven: back cover of ELVIS' GREATEST SHIT bootleg LP album.

The con­cept of this in­fa­mous bootleg album was great: find al­ter­na­tive takes of tracks that were among the worst that Elvis had ever recorded and present them in one package as “Elvis’ Greatest Shit.” Un­for­tu­nately, the man­u­fac­turers sad­dled the album with one of the most taste­less cover ever placed on an album, bootleg or oth­er­wise. The back cover had fake ads for four more Presley pack­ages, in­cluding the leg­endary ‘shower ses­sions’!

From Nashville to Memphis

As Ernst ex­plained it to me in 1992, he was lim­ited to four discs worth of music. He had a choice of one of two con­cepts:

1. A Nashville com­pi­la­tion that in­cluded the 90 sec­ular studio record­ings plus the 27 gospel tracks. Such a set would have only ex­tended through 1968 and left such es­sen­tial sides as In The Ghetto and Sus­pi­cious Minds on the shelf.

2. An all-secular com­pi­la­tion that in­cluded the 90 sec­ular studio record­ings from Nashville plus the 31 tracks from Mem­phis. Such a set would have only ex­tended through 1969 and in­cluded In The Ghetto and Sus­pi­cious Minds.

What to do?

The latter op­tion (2.) was chosen and FROM NASHVILLE TO MEMPHIS – THE ESSENTIAL 60’s MASTERS was re­leased in 1993. It was al­most unan­i­mously hailed as an im­por­tant ret­ro­spec­tive and placed many of Presley’s ac­com­plish­ments in a light that made them look far brighter than the orig­inal RCA Victor vinyl re­leases had done. While not the huge suc­cess of the ‘50s box, it also sold well:

Jan­uary 30, 1993      Gold Record Award
Jan­uary 6, 2004        Plat­inum Record Award

The re­li­gious record­ings were is­sued as a double-disc set AMAZING GRACE: HIS GREATEST SACRED PERFORMANCES which sold even better, being cer­ti­fied as 2xMulti-Platinum in 1999.

 

Heaven: FROM NASHVILLE TO MEMPHIS boxed CD set.

The cover photo for the ’60s box From Nashville to Mem­phis per­fectly cap­tures the trans­for­ma­tion of the singer from the some­what threat­ening Elvis the Pelvis of 1956 to the actor who ten years later was making B-movies for drive-in double-features.

Elvis’ Greatest Schidts

I had ac­tu­ally cast my vote for the first op­tion [1], the all-Nashville set. I thought that a sep­a­rate box of Elvis in the studio in Mem­phis and on stage in Vegas in 1969 would have been a good idea. Ernst and I con­tinued palavering for a couple of hours, and I even­tu­ally made a pro­posal to him. Here’s how the con­ver­sa­tion went:

NEAL: “If you put to­gether a double-disc set of my se­lec­tions, I will write an en­tire bonus book to go with it—for free! I won’t take a cent for writing the best and fun­niest and most honest liner notes any Elvis album ever had! And I bet you a hun­dred bucks it’s the biggest selling Elvis album in years!

ERNST: “Okay. And what would we call this album?”

NEAL:The Worst Of Elvis In Hol­ly­wood In The Six­ties. I’ll pick the 50 worst songs that Presley recorded during that time: you know, There’s No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car, Queenie Wahine’s Pa­paya, Old Mac­Donald … that sort of crap! We’ll in­clude Elvis bitching about how dumb the songs are and how he hated recording them.”

ERNST: “I love it! But it’ll never work.”

NEAL: “C’mon, it could be the biggest selling Elvis item in years!” 8

ERNST: “Neal, RCA would never ever EVER allow such a thing.”

I fig­ured as much …

I pro­posed com­piling an album ti­tled THE WORST OF ELVIS IN HOLLYWOOD with al­ter­na­tive takes and studio chatter with Elvis bitching about how dumb the songs are and how he hated recording them. Click To Tweet

Heaven: bonus photo from HARUM SCARUM LP album in 1966.

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of the page is from the bonus photo that was in­cluded with orig­inal copies of the 1966 movie sound­track album HARUM SCARUM (RCA Victor LPM/LSP-3468). The image has been cropped and dark­ened for better im­pact and to in­crease the ti­tle’s read­ability.

 


FOOTNOTES:

1   The bi­o­graph­ical essay was cour­tesy of Peter Gu­ral­nick, who later pub­lished two vol­umes de­tailing Pres­ley’s life and ac­com­plish­ments along with his tribu­la­tions: Last Train To Mem­phis – The Rise Of Elvis Presley (1996) and Care­less Love – The Un­making Of Elvis Presley (1999). It is doubtful that a better bi­og­raphy of the man will ever be written.

2   While we can look back at count­less boxed sets of CDs that have sold mil­lions of copies in the past twenty years, in 1992 such deluxe sets were still new and sales pro­jec­tions were guesses at best. Few people ex­pected a col­lec­tion of end­lessly re­cy­cled Presley sides would be more than a modest sales suc­cess.

3   KORR was cer­ti­fied for a 2xPlatinum Record Award on July 30, 2002, in­di­cating sales of 400,000 boxes equalling 2,000,000 units. To reach the next cer­ti­fi­ca­tion level (3xPlatinum), it will have to sell an­other 200,000 copies. Which, given the plum­meting sales of CDs, may never occur.

4   RCA had been ‘en­hancing’ Pres­ley’s record­ings since Steve Sholes tweaked sev­eral Sun tapes for in­clu­sion on the first Elvis EP and LP al­bums in early 1956. Most of the 45s sides were re­mas­tered for re­lease as part of the Gold Stan­dard se­ries in 1959. Sev­eral EP sides were boosted for re­lease in LP in 1959. All of the mono LPs were “elec­tron­i­cally re­processed for stereo” in the early ’60s and since 1969, that was the only way that those al­bums could be pur­chased any­where.

5   As a fan, Jør­gensen had co-authored Elvis Recording Ses­sions with Erik Ras­mussen and Johnny Mikkelsen. First pub­lished in Den­mark in 1975, this slim book con­tained as com­plete a listing of Elvis’s recording ses­sions as was pos­sible at that time. It was a trea­sure trove of in­for­ma­tion to fans every­where.

6   The boxed sets con­tained five discs, of which the final disc was set aside for record­ings in­tended for diehard fans and col­lec­tors, such as out­takes, al­ter­na­tive takes, etc. This disc of bonus tracks was also a big selling point for the boxes.

7   Tech­ni­cally, they were not sound­tracks at all, but pop record­ings used in the making of musical-like movies, but that’s an­other con­ver­sa­tion.

8   It may be dif­fi­cult to re­member or com­pre­hend, but in the Dig­ital Era prior to KORR, RCA had a piss-poor record of re­leasing Presley Product that sold. My sug­ges­tion for a com­pi­la­tion that ac­knowl­edged that Elvis had recorded a large cat­alog of garbage would have been novel and daring—even with the bootleg pic­tured above.

9   Yes, that is the working title of the follow-up ar­ticle for this post!

 

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