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 …
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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 , 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
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.
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!