“Behind Closed Doors”
Timing had been the key to our success more than once. It was truly key for the box set. Had the material been “discovered” months apart, we would have put out two double albums. While listening to the Radio Recorders tapes, Paul was also busy tracking down leads on East Coast sessions done in Memphis and Nashville. Our combined efforts, with both of us succeeding virtually simultaneously, enabled us to do what Paul had hoped. It was unheard of in the world of bootlegs: a four–LP box set. The most ambitious project of all would contain material, studio quality no less, that would give Elvis fans a long, close listen at just what it was like to be there during an Elvis recording session.
The outtakes were combined with acetates Paul acquired. We had material from movie and studio albums; like the recording dates, the locations where the songs were recorded now varied. This project would turn some heads. We heard rumors that Graceland housed dozens of acetates; somehow they were getting out to collectors. If that collector knew Paul, and most did, we would get the goods. What Paul was given over the space of a couple months, the same couple months I was trying to locate an engineer, was every bit as unexpected and impressive as the material from Radio Recorders.
Paul had studio outtakes for the film, “The Trouble with Girls (And How to Get in to It),” unreleased material recorded during shows at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in 1969 and 1970, and studio outtakes recorded in Nashville in 1970 and 1971. With all that to work with there was no fear of overdoing it with any of the outtakes. We would have plenty of songs left over for another album down the road if we could come up with some others to add to our “leftovers.” That seemed a good possibility, since I was still on the trail of the other engineers who kept Elvis tapes from Radio Recorders.
The one item that presented a problem was a “jam session” of the song, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” We had the longest jam session of Elvis ever recorded; but the tape was turned on after the jam started and turned off before the jam ended. There was no true “beginning,” nor was there any real “ending.” This would be Larry Boden’s finest hour. He listened to the tape a few times, picked out a logical place to begin, and started snipping. Overall, Larry cut the tape into over thirty different sections and then reassembled them to give the sense of a beginning, middle, and end to the jam. It sounded right, it made much better listening than our original tape, and we were sure the fans would like it this way.
How good was it? Consider the probability of you and I independently taking the same tape, cutting it into thirty pieces, and, using some pieces more than once, reassembling the pieces in the same order. That is what they call a mathematical impossibility. A statistician could compute the actual odds; suffice to say it would be a very large number.
Thus, when I tell you that RCA put out a jam session of this song on “Our Memories of Elvis” that happens to parallel the jam on our box set note for note you will know how flattered we were. That cliché, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” has always made me laugh since they did that. I can only assume that they didn’t like the jam in its original form any better than we did. Why go to all the work of making it sound like a complete performance when we had already done the job for them? They simply lopped a bit off the beginning and end, added some treble and bass in different spots, and that was that. Or, they beat some huge odds. You pick what happened. Paying further tribute to our work, RCA finally put out the 1961 Hawaii Benefit Concert as part of an eight–LP box set a few years after our album was released. This time they spent hours trying to clean up the tape; they succeeded marginally. Or, they got a better tape. Since there were only six copies in the world, including ours, and since only one person taped it, it seems they went back to the bootlegs for material they needed. Nice to know they liked our albums. I’ve always wondered: whom did I mail to in the Los Angeles area that worked for RCA? Our career was being closely monitored; how closely would soon be apparent.
Not just in Los Angeles and New York did they take a fancy to our work, Australia paid us a supreme complement by using two of our covers on EPs issued on the RCA label. They used the front cover of the “Viva Las Vegas” LP in a slightly modified form for a “Love in Las Vegas” Vol. 2; EP; the back cover of the “Elvis Presley Dorsey Shows” album became the back cover of an EP titled, “From the Waist Up.” It contained four tracks from Elvis’ Dorsey, Berle, and Sullivan appearances. Using not just the songs we unearthed and placed on vinyl for fans to enjoy, but taking our original artwork and calling it their own indicates RCA thought highly of our product. They even appropriated one of our titles. Why they decided to pursue us as criminals, rather than joining forces to create Elvis product the fans wanted and deserved is typical of the corporate mentality. We showed them up, went them many steps better, and, as is often the case, no good deed shall go unpunished.
The “Behind Closed Doors” box set turned out just as we hoped. It was impressive enough to rival any commercial release. We had made the ultimate bootleg. It was costly for us, almost as much as four single LPs, but cheaper for the fans. We found pictures with a “door” theme for the front and back covers, listed all pertinent information about the recording dates and the “take” number, and used the German Audifön label once more to imply authenticity. Looking back, we should have included a glossy insert with the box, giving more detailed information about the recording sessions on one side and another nice photo of Elvis on the reverse.
It was spring of 1979, we had put out seven albums in eleven months; it was time to try to sell some of the inventory. Our rented garages were bursting at the seams. Extra covers for LPs were stored at the pressing plant. When it came to the boxes for “Behind Closed Doors,” they asked me to only deliver what I wanted them to use. We ordered 25,000 boxes and pressed 10,000 sets. We had made fifteen albums to date; three of them being double albums and one a four–album set. That corresponded to twenty-one LPs; and we had a few import albums we sold that were not available in the U.S. We had from three to ten thousand copies on hand of every album; we also had those 15,000 empty boxes. We had all the other catalog items in bulk also, but nothing took up space like the albums.
It was time to start moving inventory; the only way to do that was to do more mailings. That’s what we did for the next three months. That, and look for new material. As our catalogue expanded, so did interest from dealers worldwide. We were hearing from more every month; those that had previously ordered were reordering in bigger quantities. The more people that knew about our LPs, the more we were likely to sell. We had a sizable number of customers in Canada and the U.K., both individuals and dealers; we had customers in most European countries, many in Japan, and were making inroads into South America. Elvis’ fans were global; we were getting there.
We were also getting requests from fans for certain performances; to many it must have seemed that Vic could get whatever he wanted. We were constantly asked, by dealers and fans, if we knew where to get other Elvis bootlegs, ones not made by us. There were none that I would have recommended; everything worthwhile was to be found on our albums. Still, some people wanted everything, regardless of quality. As to quality, we just got better and better. From that very first album we constantly tried to improve the look of our product. We sometimes had no control over the quality of the material itself, but even there, what we found as time went on was equal to or slightly less than anything issued by RCA. Those old bootlegs were long out of print. The makers had moved on. No one was interested in reproducing them, especially since they would be competing with the wealth of material being offered by Vic Colonna.
Paul and I batted around the possibility of making them again. The decision was: we just couldn’t do that to our customers. With only four or five exceptions, these albums had horrible graphics—many simply had a Xeroxed 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper with a crude drawing slipped under the shrink wrap that served as a “cover,” and the labels were blank—and the quality of the recordings was atrocious. Those exceptions contained nothing that could not be found on our albums. Most often what was on our LPs was better quality; it certainly was never worse. No, we could not sell them. But other dealers could and would. Paul had all of them in his collection; we could reproduce them if we wanted to. Since the graphics were so simplistic, the cost of the covers would be minimal for all but a few. If they had blank labels, we would not correct that. We could make a thousand of each and they would cost us less than a dollar apiece for most. Before going any further, we contacted all our dealers to see if they truly wanted them.
They did. We thought about it some more. Then Paul remembered a fellow in Florida, Richard Minor, who offered many of these LPs. It was likely Richard had simply knocked off the originals. We contacted Richard, and it was tough to get anything accomplished with phone calls. I decided to fly to Florida to meet him in person and see if we could strike a deal. Richard’s business did not have a sterling reputation; he wasn’t cheating anyone, he was just very slow when it came to delivery. When I got there I saw why. Richard lived in the projects in Miami; he shared the house with his parents. The neighborhood would best be described as upper lower class. Richard didn’t have much money, wasn’t very well organized, but he did want to see his business grow and become more successful. He sold records of all kinds, not just bootlegs. Most were semi–collectable, not things that were rare and commanded high prices. He did not order wholesale from us because he didn’t sell that many of the Elvis bootlegs he did have.
It turned out that Richard had purchased many of these poor quality bootlegs that collectors wanted from a fellow who moved out of the country. He got them for a bargain price, less than twenty-five cents an album, but junk is junk. He had almost 20,000 LPs; over one thousand each of eighteen different titles, and his original vision of selling them for ten dollars each and making a killing had not materialized. They just didn’t move; he didn’t have the contacts. Richard relied on Goldmine, the record collector’s monthly, to showcase his wares. He sold a few every month, but nothing like he had anticipated. He had recouped his investment, but all that meant was that he had sold roughly thirty copies of each album. He would have these around for years to come.
Richard’s mission statement necessitated buying in large quantities for very low prices and then reselling at fifteen to twenty times cost. Or more. Those eighteen bootlegs were being offered for $10 each, over forty times his cost. He would buy huge collections that were mostly things no one wanted, sell the few desirable items and get his money back, and then be stuck with tons of records he could not move. One reason he was slow in delivering was that he had so many records that he listed for sale but had not yet sorted so they could be easily found, it took a while to locate the item ordered before shipping. He wasn’t losing money, but he sure wasn’t making much. He could buy single LPs from us for $3.50 and resell them for $10, but Richard didn’t think that way. He wanted our albums, but only if he could get them for a song. He knew he couldn’t make them himself; the graphics would lose too much quality by making negatives from our covers. It would be too obvious. Word would get back to us and there would be problems.
Richard had what we wanted and could save us lots of work; we had what Richard wanted and he could get them for the price he wanted to pay. All we had to do was trade Richard our albums for those old bootlegs. We could then sell them to dealers for the same price as our albums and it would be the same thing in the end as selling our inventory. Still, that didn’t quite set right with Paul and I. Trading our albums even–up for the ones Richard had just was not a fair exchange; even Richard could see that. Selling those old bootlegs for the same wholesale price that we charged for ours did not seem fair either. We offered, Richard countered, but we never did come to any deal. I went back home after spending a few days talking about things with Richard, then talking to Paul, then back to Richard, then back to Paul.
I even accompanied Richard on a trip to Roanoke, VA where he purchased a collection of over 500,000 45s for $5,000. That was a penny apiece; I thought he overpaid. Richard probably paid that much to rent a trailer to load them in and have it driven to Miami. He next had to rent space to store all those records. Richard’s business plan was nothing like ours. We were in no rush; we’d wait Richard out. If we did decide to offer all those old bootlegs to dealers then we would make a deal. We would do what we had been doing, concentrate on reducing our inventory. The unimagined offshoot of this trip was that I made Richard rich.