Elvis Presley’s Archivist on the Heartbreak of Tapes Trashed by RCA, Scouring the South for Lost Recordings

No single recording artist in history has a single archivist quite like Ernst Jørgensen, who began working on the Elvis Presley catalogue in the 1990s and has become, not just the producer of his reissues, but the primary researcher and even liner notes writer as well. He’s a subject of fascination himself among the hardcore Elvis fandom, as the keeper of the keys to whatever lies in the vault, as well as the storyteller who puts together themed boxed sets that tell individual pieces of the Elvis story.

Jørgensen’s newest and possibly greatest project is “A Boy From Tupelo,” a three-disc collection that includes every known existing piece of music that Presley recorded in 1953-55, from the first demo he purportedly recorded for his mother to the final recordings he made for the Sun label before Sam Phillips sold his contract to RCA (watch a short film about the project here). Regardless of whether you think rock and roll is being actually invented in these early studio sessions, it’s fascinating to hear Elvis invent himself… and the music would be bliss even if he’d been the biggest copycat in the world. Jørgensen talked with Variety about the research and restoration that went into the new set — along with why he puts just as much effort into Elvis’ latter-day catalogue.

There is a lot of debate over whether Elvis’ spontaneous rendition of “That’s All Right, Mama” in the studio is the first rock and roll record. That’s a hard measure for any one single to live up to. But it feels like the first something.
Ernst Jorgensen:
It’s a little hard to say that “That’s All Right” was the first rock and roll recording. I think it’s something in itself, but not a definition of what rock and roll is. It’s so natural — that’s the point. It’s not like anybody speculated, “How can I make a white boy sound like a black blues singer?” (as producer Sam Phillips is alleged to have speculated). It’s nothing like that. It’s not a blues recording, and “That’s All Right” to me is not rock and roll, either. It’s what it is in itself. It’s something that came out of Elvis’ head within minutes, and something that probably landed on tape within 10, maybe 15 minutes. I’ve had nobody tell me “Oh, Elvis’ version of ‘That’s All Right’ sounds like something that was recorded before 1954. And if you compare it to [composer Arthur] Crudup, and this whole idiotic idea about how Elvis stole the black people’s music, I mean, first of all, it’s not actually a copy of that song. It’s a mixture of a lot of songs that Crudup did – but that’s not the point. The point is the way that Elvis makes this airy, beautiful record that almost flies away on its own wings. It’s fine that Scotty [Moore] and Bill [Black] are there. But the whole drive lies in Elvis’s own acoustic guitar, and the way he sings it with such ease. There’s nothing that seems pressurized, and nothing that has been contrived. And it’s so simple, yet, I mean, I can’t even find many recordings that sound like “That’s All Right” AFTER “That’s All Right.” I think the closest is Elvis himself, in his big hit “All Shook Up,” which has an element of the same thing that’s so free-flying and natural and easy. But for that to happen in a moment in a 19-year-old kid who has something at stake there, that’s an absolutely wonderful story in itself, and in my mind enough to say, “This is why Elvis was great.”

One thing that’s fun about the concert disc with excerpts from some of Elvis’ first appearances on live radio shows is how the DJs differ in how they describe this new style. A couple call it a brand new kind of country music. One DJ describes it as a variation on folk. They’re at a loss about what this is but they know it’s rocking, if not yet rock.
Maybe that’s a stretch for people like us that think folk music is very much Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. But it’s not really country, of course, because where are the fiddles? Where are the banjos? Not even discussing drums or no drums, because there’s no drums on most of Elvis’s Sun material, either. And country music people probably didn’t feel that he was true to country, either. I mean, [his cover of Bill Monroe’s] “Blue Moon of Kentucky” has an element of unintended provocation to it, in that it straightened out a waltz beat and made it a 4/4 instead. So, yeah, what did they call “Maybelline” by Chuck Berry, at first, I wonder?

The label has said that about 1,500 hours went into audio restoration on this particular boxed set, but that doesn’t begin to count all the work that went into tracking down the audio elements, or the old photos and the documentation of Elvis’ first tours you include in the set.
It certainly is one of the projects that I love the most. It’s been a labor of love for 20 years, or even longer than that. It’s obviously not something I did every day, but every time I could get to play with this, I did. And it’s really a project of hundreds of people who went out of their way to support the idea of documenting this. We had this guy Sebastian Jeansson do a lot of the restoration because he’s brilliant at it, and also because he’s like me: a bit nutty. We had to do it outside the regular several-hundred-dollars-an-hour recording studio scenario. So it’s come together that way. I traveled the South for many, many years on my own money — not to complain about it — just because it was my hobby. It was a great gig to arrive in a small town in the South, and people being ever so kind, trying to help. The librarian would, “Well, I never saw Elvis, but my sister did, let me call her.” And then the sister tells you the story and says, “By the way, my girlfriend Linda took some photos,” and eventually the whole thing appears in front of your eyes. But you couldn’t put a commercial budget to something like this. It can only happen like “American Epic” and a lot of other things happened. It has to be with somebody who loves it enough to put all their time into it.

In recent years there have been many fantastic period-specific Elvis boxed sets, including “Elvis at Stax.” As much as the intelligentsia love his first recordings, it’s not hard to imagine that maybe his 1960s and 1970s material has broader commercial appeal. But the Sun music is so historically important as well as great. Is there a reason you didn’t get to it first?
That’s a good question, you say when you are cornered! [Laughs.] Basically, there was an edition that we produced in 2012 [for the exclusive collectors’ label, Follow That Dream] that was thought of just as much as a book. It actually only released in Denmark, and we shipped out the 4,000 copies and they were gone. It was very expensive, and impossible to get, other than if you were connected to the fan club network. (On the resale website Discogs, a sealed copy of that older, larger “Boy From Tupelo” box now goes for around $1,800, and a used copy is offered for around $500.) So it was a question of finding a time to squeeze it in and make it a Sony release. (The new mass-market version includes all the music and data, and some of the photos, with less elaborate packaging, in the $25-30 range.) We’ve actually been debating every year that we should put it out, and it could have been put out with the 60th anniversary a few years ago. But this wasn’t going to go away.

You certainly believe yourself that the later material is just as valid.
I’m in New York, sitting here with my [Sony] colleagues and debating the future [boxed sets]. The question is this one: It was fairly easy to expect that journalists like yourself would be intrigued by this release, versus some others we have done or still could do, in that there is something about the early days of any artist that you’re always curious about, and the freshness of it. Almost everybody seems to be willing to give Elvis credit for his Sun recordings. Last year we did one of Elvis’s final recordings, “Way Down in the Jungle Room,” which apart from Elvis’s movies is probably the least regarded of Elvis’s recordings — the ‘70s recordings. It got very nice reviews, and it sold much better than we expected. Suddenly, we have to stop and say, wow, what made that happen? I think to some extent, seeing it from a European point of view, since I am European, there’s been a lot of prejudice in America against Elvis Presley. Elvis’s true musical legacy often gets lost in the myth of Elvis Presley, the tabloid Elvis Presley, all these other Elvises that exist. How many people remember or have ever heard the material on “From Elvis in Memphis” or his gospel album, “How Great Thou Art”?

Unlike the other boxed sets you’ve done, you had to work with a huge variety of sources on this one, from the master tapes that survive to transferring off vinyl to acetates and tapes in the worst shape.
That was part of the other thing of this boxed set, to get the best possible audio sound, after we tried to get the best audio sound for so many other releases in the past 40 years. But to go back and say that we’re not satisfied with the RCA tape of “That’s All Right,” because there was reverb added to it [after RCA bought the rights from Sun]. That’s not what that single sounded like originally. Or to do the same with “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” where it turns out that Sam Phillips had lost the master tape, so that came from a dub of a 78 record with scratches and all. We were lucky to find a totally mint 45 of “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” with a lady in Nashville whose father had been a promo man for Sam Phillips and had a whole box of ‘em. On others… we pieced it together a lot of little restored pieces to get what we think is the best sound to get close to what the original would have been. On “Mystery Train” and “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” we have the original production masters, so we’re in perfect shape there.

It’s ironic that you have perfect tapes of some of the outtakes, but not original tapes of all of the actual singles, because RCA destroyed some after Sam Phillips handed them over in the deal.
There were seven Elvis Sun tapes that were just sent to scrap. They were probably just dumped to save a warehouse bill. In hindsight, that sounds ridiculous, but it probably made sense at the time. We got a tape of “I Don’t Care if the Sun Don’t Shine” that RCA never got in the first place. It was sitting at the end of a tape of some other artist, and it was only by luck that that part of the tape was not recorded over. I’ll tell you the real heartbreak of it. We have 1957 paperwork listing literally hundreds of tapes that were being sent for destruction, and one of them [says] “’That’s All Right’ plus two other selections.” You go, what would they have been? The speculation is that “Tiger Man” was one of them, because Elvis sometimes referred to “Tiger Man” as the second song he recorded, and of course there is no Sun recording of Elvis singing “Tiger Man.” So there’s all this heartache. Only dreamers, and maybe I’m one, will think that these tapes survived [and are still out there somewhere].

There are more than 20 recordings in this set that were never released previous to the limited collectors’ box you had a few years ago. And there’s one you came up with even since then, a fascinating live recording of “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.”
Yeah, which I think is lovely. DJ Fontana is sick at that tour; I think he’s in a hospital, so there are no drums. You basically hear Elvis and the guitar. And it takes on a different flavor than the record version, which is a bit heavy with the drumbeat. And here he’s basically singing it almost alone. It popped up on the internet just the same week that the previous release was out, and I was almost ready to shoot myself. You hope for such things to happen again. It came from a guy who collected war speeches, and he bought this wire recording thinking it was a war speech, and just figured out it was a hillbilly show. Then he wanted to share that with the world so he put it out on the internet, not knowing what it was he had, and obviously everybody went nuts. I managed to buy the rights he had — or didn’t have; whatever! — before the physical wire tape ended up with some collector.  That was my favorite discovery, because it feels like an entirely different song. Meanwhile I’m still sitting here waiting for somebody to come out of the woodwork with a tape of Elvis at the Louisiana Hayride singing some songs we know he did there, like “Rock Around the Clock” and the Platters’ “Only You,” because I’m sure it would be amazing. Please go and find it for me!

Listen to “When It Rains It Pours” from “Elvis Presley: A Boy From Tupelo,” below: