Ernst Jorgensen is the keeper of the Elvis vaults. Saturday marked the 26th anniversary of Elvis Presley's passing, but RCA Victor continues to mine his old reservoir of recordings for new products. Producer and researcher Jorgensen manages Presley's back catalog and he is the man who goes through the mountains of old tape looking for interesting and often unreleased material that might interest hard-core Presley fans or - as in the case of "Elvis 30 #1 Hits" - snag the interest of the general public. Jorgensen spoke to writer Dave Tianen about the challenges of managing Elvis' recorded legacy.
Q. There was a collection of Elvis No. 1 hits available for years before "Elvis 30 #1 Hits" came out. I never expected that to go multi-multiplatinum. Were you surprised?
EJ. I wasn't surprised that it would sell, but that we've sold 9 million worldwide now, that is a pleasant surprise. The company in general was very bullish about it. There was one guy who stood up and said, "We're going to sell 10 million of this." The rest of us looked at him and said, "I'm glad I didn't say that." He's eventually going to be proven right.
Q. Country Music magazine recently ran an interview with June Carter Cash in which she said Elvis' manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had absolutely no idea what constituted good material or songs. Was he truly clueless or merely indifferent?
EJ. Parker was never there at the recording sessions. The only way he interfered - and it was a dramatic interference - was through the whole setup of Elvis music and publishing... He fought to convince Elvis to only record songs from staff writers. Elvis was probably a little too nice on that issue, ... well, not a little bit. The Colonel felt threatened by the great songwriters (Jerry) Leiber and (Mike) Stoller to the point where the Colonel made sure that the two great songs they'd written for "G.I. Blues" got kicked out of the movie.
Q. Was the Colonel an idiot?
EJ. I don't think he was an idiot, but he was unsympathetic to the feelings that people like you and I have about Elvis. He was all, all business. Where you can criticize the Colonel and Elvis was that it took them until 1968 to realize they had to do something else. They should have realized that in '64, '65. It was obvious at that time that each of those movie albums sold less than the one before. We would not have had to listen to "Frankie and Johnny" and "Harum Scarum" and "Easy Come, Easy Go."
Q. One of the problems you must have is that Elvis Presley recorded more horrendous junk than any other major recording artist - "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad," "Petunia the Gardener's Daughter"; we could go on and on. Do you just ignore that stuff?
EJ. We separate to a great extent between what is available for collectors and what is for the main marketplace. There is a major, major difference between Elvis or Sinatra from the time when you have artists who actually write their own material and thereby keep a consistent level of quality. There are several things that Frank Sinatra and Elvis have in common, but there are two things that are very, very important. One is that they both recorded "Old MacDonald." The second one is that they shouldn't have.
Q. What is it that made Elvis Presley a great singer? Was he a great singer?
EJ. The magic of Elvis Presley is that he had a very nice voice, but he didn't have the biggest voice in the world. Roy Hamilton had a bigger voice. Opera singers, obviously, have bigger voices. The uniqueness of Elvis was to take a song and make it believable. The best example of that, to me, is "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" If you just read those lyrics off a piece of paper, you'd say anyone who does that lyric is going to die somewhere. That's so over the top as a lyric, but you actually believe him when he sings it, and I think that's the magic of it.
From the Aug. 17, 2003 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.