The "Reel" Elvis

Jay Lustig -January 26, 2004
           For $495, you can own a piece of rock history -- maybe... Tomorrow in New York, 2 inches of chocolate-brown recording tape will be cut off a decades-old reel. And a rock 'n' roll artifact will be turned into a collectible. The reel will eventually produce hundreds, maybe thousands of 2-inch segments, which will be placed in Lucite holders that will help preserve them. The holders will then be mounted on plaques, which will be sold for $495 each.
           Michael Esposito, president of Master Tape Collection, the Bloomfield-based company that owns the tape and will market the plaques through its Web site (, claims it's an original tape of 10 Elvis Presley performances from the landmark 1954-55 "Sun Sessions." Most significantly, the reel contains "That's All Right," Presley's feverish version of Arthur Crudup's blues song became his first hit, and set the rock 'n' roll revolution in motion.
           This project has been officially licensed by Elvis Presley Enterprises, which manages The King's estate. But its validity is also being questioned. "We possess the original tape, and beyond that we can't comment," said a spokesperson for RCA Records.
           Presley expert Ernst Mikael Jorgensen also said RCA has, on a number of different reels, the original masters for all the MTC songs (including "Mystery Train," "Trying To Get To You" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky"). RCA bought them from Sam Phillips -- who owned Presley's first record company, Sun - in 1955. And they have been in RCA's possession since then, said Jorgensen, an RCA consultant who has worked as a producer, mixer and liner-note writer on dozens of Presley reissues and compilations, including 1999's "Sunrise" (a collection of Presley recordings from 1953-55), 2002's "Elvis: 30 #1 Hits" and last year's "2nd To None."
           In a phone interview from his office in Denmark, Jorgensen said he didn't doubt MTC has "something that contains outtakes and possibly masters of Elvis' Sun recordings. But if I find a tape recorder and run a tape for you, you will also have outtakes and masters from Sun. So it is our thinking that what they have is a copy, but we can in no way prove that's the case, since we don't have the tape."
           For this kind of project, the importance of authenticity cannot be overstated. For the plaques to justify the $495 price tag, there has to be no question the tape segments were in the studio with Presley, capturing history as it was being made.
           Esposito hired Tony Bongiovi (the founder of the New York recording studio The Power Station, the producer of albums by artists including The Ramones and Aerosmith, and a cousin of Jon Bon Jovi) to examine the tape. Esposito also contacted Jorgensen, who sent him copies of what RCA had in its vaults.
           Working with two other audio experts, Bongiovi compared the two sets of recordings. They came to the conclusion that while MTC had no performances RCA didn't have, it had rawer versions of the songs -- i.e., the songs before reverb and other effects had been added. There was also the kind of between-song banter that is often heard on an original tape. They concluded the tape was, therefore, the original.
           Jorgensen is unswayed by their report. "There is no reverb on our tapes other than what Sam used in the actual recording session - he had a device to do that," he said. "And there is certainly talk in between (songs) on the tapes that we have. In (MTC's) conversations with me, they have never been able to describe an element that I don't recognize on our original tapes."
           Even Esposito admits there is a chance his tape could be a copy. "It's possible, but not highly probable," he said. "You have to keep in mind that this was Elvis Presley, pre-Elvis Presley. It was 1954. He didn't have a hit. He didn't know what he was about to see happen with 'That's All Right,' where it shot up on the Memphis charts to No. 3 in three or four weeks.
           "We've asked the question of studio owners: Would they have off-handedly made five or six copies of this? No. The cost of the tapes was too expensive."
           Pete Davidson, senior licensing manager at Elvis Presley Enterprises, said he believes Bongiovi's analysis was "very thorough." As a licensee, MTC can use Presley's name and photo on its plaques. Elvis Presley Enterprises will receive an undisclosed amount of money, as well as the first plaque that is made.
           Davidson said he had only a "very limited conversation" with Jorgensen about the tape. It's possible, of course, that Phillips was running a second tape recorder at the original sessions, maybe to back up his main machine. But that is unlikely. Phillips, who died last year, was far from rich at the time, and tape - as Esposito argued - was expensive.
           Esposito said he was not able to show Phillips the tape before the legendary producer died, but did talk to him several times. "I explained in great detail what the physical properties of the tape were, what it looked like, what songs were on it and so on," he said. "Sam had a lot of good questions about the tape. Specifically, 'Give me the color of the tape,' that was one of his first tests. I explained what the color was, and he said, 'Well, that's right.' Then he asked if I knew what brand the tape was. I gave him the brand, and he agreed with that."
           There is no clear line linking MTC's tape, physically, to Sun Studios. It was part of a collection of hundreds of tapes MTC purchased in 1992 from a Nashville couple, who had bought them a few years earlier at a warehouse auction. Among the other tapes purchased by MTC were recordings by Sun artists like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
           The warehouse put them up for sale when Michael Figlio, a former recording engineer at Columbia Records' Nashville recording studio, failed to make a storage payment. He accumulated the tapes in the '70s, at first just saving them from being thrown into the studio dumpster and later paying small fees for them.
           In a 1995 interview with The Star-Ledger (conducted for a different story related to the collection), Figlio said he thought they were blank tapes, since Columbia's policy was to erase tapes that were going to be discarded. He used some tapes to record music in his own studio, and gave others away. When he sold his studio, he moved them to the warehouse.
           No one can explain how music recorded for Sun and bought by RCA ended up at the studio of a rival company, Columbia. The first cut on MTC's tape will be made tomorrow, at a news conference at New York's Nola Recording Studios. No music or studio banter will be lost in the process. Every sound on the tape has already been saved, in digital form.
           There is no reason to keep the tape whole, said Esposito, a Montclair resident who has been involved in the music business for 35 years - most notably as the founder of the Mirror record label (which has released albums by artists like Frankie Avalon and Benny Troy) and the co-founder of a sound reproduction company, Polyfonic Sound Industries. Because of its age, the tape disintegrates a little bit every time it runs through a player.
           By cutting it up, said Esposito, "we're allowing a fan of Elvis to have a piece of what we believe was original history." Davidson doesn't see anything wrong with this. "This is an artifact that they can do with as they choose, and it's deteriorating," he said. "It's going to disintegrate if left alone."
          Jorgensen, again, begs to differ. "I'm just curious about why in the world anybody would cut up an original Sun tape, if they had one," he said. "I mean, I get sick every time our tapes travel from one location to another. So for me to imagine that we had a Sun tape and BMG (RCA's corporate parent) would need the money and we start cutting up the Elvis tape ... it's a very unpleasant thought..."

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