The Elvis Hunter

By David Segal - Washington PostOct 13, 2003
The Elvis Hunter
The Elvis hunter is staring at his plate, a mound of gravy-covered meat that is clearly not the cheeseburger he ordered. He'd send it back, and risk the wrath of the short-order cook here at the Court Square Cafe, but there's a mystery on his mind that's even richer than his lunch. "I'm from Elvis Presley's record label," Ernst Jorgensen explains to a waitress, who is hovering near the table. "We think that he might have played in Covington in 1955, and we're trying to find someone who was at the show." She looks at him blankly for a moment, a pot of coffee hoisted in one hand. This apparently isn't a question she fields every day. "I really have no idea," she says, shaking her head cheerfully. "Can I get you anything else?" Well, a photo would be nice. A tape of the concert, if it happened, would be even better. But right now, Jorgensen will settle for a witness, someone who can fill a rare gap in the stupendously detailed account of Presley's life that he's been assembling, on and off, for decades. A native-born Dane who lives on a farm outside Copenhagen, Jorgensen has covered thousands of miles and burned tankloads of gas tracking down every imaginable detail of Presley's career, from the minutiae of recording sessions to the set lists of tours. He's unearthed lost songs and interviewed hundreds of Presley's engineers, producers and backup musicians. He's bought master tapes that were stolen from record-label vaults and ransomed for small fortunes. If rock has a Columbo, it's Jorgensen, a heavy-smoking 52-year-old with a Nordic accent and bright blond hair. Elvis-hunting has been his full-time job since the early '90s, when he began a massive repackaging of Presley's music for BMG, the German conglomerate that owns the RCA label and, therefore, Elvis's catalogue. At least once a year, and sometimes more often, the company releases an album or a multi-CD box set compiled by Jorgensen in collaboration with a Brit named Roger Semon. Their challenge is to sell a product that's musty by pop standards, and one that's already been sold and resold dozens of times. (More than 500 Presley albums, with plenty of overlap, have been released over the years.) So Semon searches for previously unpublished photos, while Jorgensen rummages around backwater towns and barters in the black market for Presley music, seeking outtakes or rarities, or fresher recordings of classics. Then, with a curator's zeal, the two package this bounty in ways that make the discs feel like events rather than old wine in spiffy bottles. So far, it's worked. All told, the pair have helped move more than a half-billion dollars worth of CDs. That includes the fastest-selling Elvis CD in history -- "Elvis: 30 #1 Hits," released last year -- and a follow-up disc, "2nd to None," which was released Tuesday. "2nd" is expected to debut near the top of the Billboard charts, giving Presley his second platinum album in two years. And Elvis Inc. is busier than ever. In the coming months there'll be a gospel collection, a love songs anthology and a Sun Records retrospective, all overseen by Jorgensen and Semon. It turns out that Presley's audience is broader and more eager to buy and rebuy his songs than anyone had imagined. That includes his label, which for many years treated its most famous artist as little more than a paycheck in a gaudy cape. "Elvis was really almost forgotten," says Mike Omansky, a former vice president at RCA. "It was recognized that if you put out an Elvis release you'd make some money, but there was no effort to match the quality of product with Presley's artistry." Jorgensen changed that. He did it largely by treating Presley's life and work with a seriousness that nobody in the early '90s thought it warranted. One of his many projects now is writing a book pegged to the 50th anniversary of Elvis's start in show business -- dated from his first recording, "That's All Right" in 1954 -- and for that opus he's digging into the earliest months of Presley's career, before the shy, hyperactive kid with the sideburns ushered in the age of rock. Accounting for the King's whereabouts during each day of this era is surprisingly tricky; he was catching fire at the time but wasn't yet ablaze. Jorgensen, though, is relentless. Through a barrage of transatlantic calls, 20 trips through the South and eight months on the road, he's managed to nail down all but a couple dozen dates. Among the blanks: March 16, 1955. Jorgensen has found a letter inviting Elvis to play in Covington that day, at a 400-seat movie house called the Ruffin Theater. But was the invitation accepted? And if this guitar-playing meteor really crashed here, is anyone still around to describe the impact? Jorgensen will scour the town for an answer this sweaty afternoon, with the town's historian and cemetery superintendent, a super-enthusiastic 38-year-old named David Gwinn. Jorgensen called him a few weeks ago and, since then, Gwinn has been poring over archived copies of the local newspaper, circa 1955. He found something tantalizing: a Ruffin Theater ad announcing a jamboree show on Wednesday, March 16. Unfortunately, it doesn't mention any performers. "We know that Elvis was in Austin the next night, that Thursday," Jorgensen says, consulting a timeline he's drafted that lists every known day of Presley's performing life. "Austin is a good nine hours away," says Gwinn. He has a deep Southern drawl that turns "time" into "tam." "And there were no interstate highways around here at that tam." "It's not ideal planning," says Jorgensen, trying a forkful of meat. "It's an all-night drive. They could have driven for as long as they could, taken turns at the wheel. It was just three guys with a bass [guitar] strapped to the roof of the car." There's no choice but to poll the locals. Feeling deputized, Gwinn gets out of his chair and kneels beside an elderly couple at a nearby table. It's Pat Weir and her husband, Ken. Mrs. Weir has a firm opinion on this subject. "Elvis played at the Ruffin," she says, without hesitation. Bingo, it seems, on the very first card. Were you at the show? Gwinn asks. "No, I wasn't," she says. "I've just always heard that Elvis played here." Let the hunt begin. The Fallen King Before Ernst Jorgensen became the in-house Presley expert at BMG, the company's market research suggested that the typical Elvis fan fit a very narrow profile. She was a woman between 35 and 55 years old; she was white and Southern and married to a blue-collar worker; and she would never, under any circumstances, pay more than $10 for a Presley album. This blinkered view of the King's appeal was inevitable, given the way his legacy was then marketed. Starting in the late '70s, Elvis albums were lobbed haphazardly into record stores, one after another. Some lacked a coherent theme ("Elvis Sings for Children and Grownups Too!"), others had a theme and an uneven song list, and many were hobbled by inferior recordings. The strategy -- if you could call it that -- reflected the get-it-now style of Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, a former carny who emphasized cash flow over quality from the start of Elvis's career. When Presley died in 1977, the Colonel retained a strong hand in the way his only client was packaged, and that approach took on a momentum of its own after Parker passed away. To RCA, Presley was an afterthought, a valuable if neglected annuity and a low priority compared with the new acts then being pushed. The focus wandered from Presley's music and onto his bizarre and graceless final years and exit. To Jorgensen, this seemed like a shame. "After he died, all you saw of Elvis for 15 years was the bloated Elvis on the front of the National Enquirer," he says. "The erratic behavior at the end of Presley's life had overshadowed one of the most important talents in this country. Nobody could hear
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Reactions

AJ (profilecontact) wrote on Mar 30, 2004report abuse
think he's done a fine job. would like to see if he's found another interview done in Arkansas in 1954 by Elvis. tell him to write me

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