from nashville to memphis with heaven in between

Es­ti­mated reading time is 12 min­utes.

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.



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.



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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