Making them pay
Christmas 1979 was the year Patrick knocked over the tree; it was the year we knocked the Elvis world on its collective rear. A four–LP box set and four individual albums, all with scads of material from recording sessions that fans never expected to hear, made Vic Colonna a subject whispered and shouted about at home and at the office. Unfortunately, members of the RCA, FBI, and RIAA inhabited some of those offices. Whatever happened, we were still having fun. The last four albums received nothing but praise, for both content and covers. We had included a “preview” of what next year would bring by picking three songs from the “Aloha Rehearsal Show” and including them on “Plantation Rock.” The rehearsal paralleled the historic performance for most of the concert; only a couple songs were unique to this show. Elvis always could be counted on to give some songs a particular flair not heard before; we picked those that differed widely from the RCA release.
That Aloha Show, broadcast live to the world via satellite (except for the U.S., because networks refused to show it without commercial interruptions), symbolized the drawing power of Elvis as nothing else could. Only the Fab Four could equal this feat. There have been many big names in the annals of rock; the pantheon of genuine superstars grows every decade. Elvis and The Beatles are the Northern Lights. I have always speculated, but never confirmed, that this afternoon rehearsal show was a “backup.” What if something went wrong with the satellite transmission? To safeguard against that possibility, however slight, I envision a tape of the rehearsal running as the show is being beamed live. If that satellite went down there would have been a few brief seconds of wavy lines, perhaps a “Please Stand By” message, and then the show would have resumed. Who would have known, save those in charge, if a tape were now running? There were no hitches or glitches; all went smoothly. But that’s the way I would have done it; to not have a backup plan would have been suicidal.
“Leavin’ It Up to You” and “A Dog’s Life” were filled with sure–to–please outtakes from sixties movies. “The Rockin’ Rebel Vol. III” had, in addition to four “Loving You” outtakes, a fifties alternate take, vastly improved sound quality of the four songs from the first Ed Sullivan appearance with the until–now unreleased Charles Laughton introduction (Sullivan was hospitalized during this historic show), two rare interviews, and Elvis’ appearance on The Steve Allen Show. The Allen material appeared on Paul’s solo bootleg, “TV Guide Presents Elvis,” but it was unavailable on any of our LPs until now.
We sent out the flyers for the four simultaneous releases with a mixture of excitement and dread. Was the FBI just waiting for something like this? Were they going to swoop down on me as I picked up the albums from Waddell’s? If they did, they’d be disappointed: the initial order was for 10,000 of each album, 9,000 of those were on their way via truck to MD two days before I showed up at the pressing plant. Paul had to find more storage space; he now had over 100,000 albums in stock. Plus, he had the shipping material: Single LP mailers, three– and five–count boxes, cardboard squares, boxes of the heavy–duty asphaltic tape, an assortment of business stamps for the packages (C.O.D., Special 4 Class Rate, Special Handling, etc.), a couple hand trucks and tape shooters. Paul used the Vic Colonna return address and took care of most of the domestic mailing. I still handled foreign orders, wholesale, film and video, and many of the paraphernalia items. A few orders had to be split, with each of us sending part, but that was easily managed.
We sure hoped the FBI had better things to do; we had no sense of their presence since they asked Robert for a statement just a couple weeks after coming to the house. His requesting an attorney seemed to have done the trick. Could it be that easy? Maybe. I just didn’t see how what we were doing rated that much attention. No one was harmed; fans were delighted. Our sales didn’t cause a ripple compared to the river of records that flowed out of RCA’s warehouses. They could have used our albums as a barometer for measuring what appealed to Elvis fans. We could sell thousands of copies, mostly in the U.S.; they could sell millions worldwide. Paul and I sometimes joked about joining forces; but it was not purely jest. We often said, “Put us in charge of Elvis releases and we’ll give them a string of top forty albums that will make RCA think it’s the fifties and sixties all over again.” We thought logically, rationally; we did not take into account our LPs cause serious bodily harm to the moguls at RCA––egos were bruised. No one likes to be shown up; that was never our intention but it was the net result.
The FBI is intimidating; that we never denied. A badge, a gun, and hubris will scare away most people. All the time and effort we had put into these albums was one thing; fan reaction was the element that kept us going. We’d be cautious, but capitulation was not an option. Wringing your hands only keeps you from rolling up your sleeves. As Thoreau said, “Be not just good, be good for something.” We were doing something serious with our lives; we were leaving a legacy and making thousands happy. Thoreau again, “Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.” Okay, we weren’t playing by the rules; but RCA didn’t care about the fans that showed their love for Elvis’ talent by spending gazillions of dollars over the years. They had no intention of ever releasing this material; many doubt they ever would have. Not until we showed them the way.
We had work to do. There was no sense being foolish; our plan was to make it seem as if we heeded the warning. Me suddenly shipping far less just might do the trick. If the FBI checked with the post office, a real possibility, they would find my shipping down 90% since that day our kitchen nook became an interrogation room. Additionally, I was on excellent terms with all the clerks and the station manager; I would have heard the minute they started nosing around. The FBI knew where I lived, did not have to expend manpower tracking me, and could easily check with the P.O. to get rough estimates of the number of packages I normally shipped in a given week. We almost hoped they would; they might then think they succeeded and go away.
With Paul wrapping all those boxes and making all those trips to the P.O., I had time to pursue something I’d been putting off for months. Eddie, who made the films we sold, had been in the business for ages. He told me to check and see if the Army had any film of Elvis. If they did, it would be public domain and available for free. Eddie said, “There must have been footage shot when Elvis was in Germany; it would be good advertising. The Army routinely supplies newsreel footage to networks and film production companies; there has to be some of Elvis, and it’s yours just for the asking. Your tax dollars at work.” I wrote to the U.S. Army Public Information Office requesting prices for film footage of Elvis Presley taken by the Army during his tour of duty. A month later a package arrived: there were two 16mm black & white reels, each about five minutes long. The footage was silent, but it was unique. No one we asked ever recalled seeing it before; we had negatives made and offered these films at a bargain price.
Paul found himself busier than ever before, but he still found time to book space at the Baltimore Convention Center for an Elvis Convention the first weekend in December. We never did well at conventions, that one in Milpitas being the sole exception, but since this was local Paul was expected to attend. He and Barbara were walking around looking at other vendor’s wares, their booth being set up by helpers, when a ripple of excitement coursed through the arena. Nine FBI agents had just entered and were fanning through the place looking for illicit items; on the list of things to watch for were bootleg LPs. They had marched up to the entrance, waved their IDs, and started to prance forward. “Whoa! Not so fast. No one gets in here without paying.” That’s right. Paul had told the fellow selling tickets not to let anyone in for free and that’s what he intended to do. Local cops would probably have just bulled their way through; this suit–and–tie crowd had manners and acted classier. That’s not to say they had class, but they did have nine bucks apiece and the convention made an extra $81 that day. As Hoover’s henchmen strutted about, Paul went over to his booth, stopped the setup process, and had all the LPs taken back out to his van. He and Barbara drove away and never did get to meet the G–men.
It was December 3, five months to the day from when they came to see me, and the FBI was now in Paul’s backyard. They weren’t going away. Two days later, as Paul was headed out of his driveway at seven in the morning to pick up his niece Lisa and take her to school, two men approached waving their badges and one shouted, “Paul Dowling? Will Garrett, FBI. We’d like to have a word with you.” Paul replied, “I’d like to talk with you guys but I have to take my niece to school. See you some other time.” And with that he drove away. Paul doesn’t rattle either.
When Paul told me later, I couldn’t stop laughing; until I explained, he didn’t really get it. “Paul, I’ve got my All–American–Boy in Jack Armstrong and now you’ve gone me one better. They rounded up a descendant of Pat Garrett just for you. I’ll have to call you ‘The Kid’ from now on.” Then Paul cracked up. He said, “Just where do they get these guys? There must be a secret government breeding farm somewhere; they can’t be real people.” Real or not, Paul now knew he had to be cautious. Trips to pick up albums from storage were usually made by Aca, Paul’s version of Robert. However, Robert was loyal and “Ace” turned out to be a thief, liar, and backstabber. Whether he was the world’s homeliest ugly person or ugliest homely person we had ever seen is still being debated. Ace named his son Elvis, testimony to the fact that, even when both of his brain cells acted in tandem, he was still incapable of original thought. That an ineffable dimwit could be capable of such treachery later surprised us both.
As 1980 began, I had a very suspicious phone call. Trying too hard to sound like a pure hick, a fellow claiming to be a swap meet seller tried to get me to make our titles available to him on cassette. I told him, “Our LPs come from Europe; prevailing exchange rates determine which country we purchase them from. We only handle LPs; cassettes are for cars and we sell collectors items.” He called back again and I told him he could buy our albums and make his own cassettes. That got rid of him; the conversation later turned up as part of the “evidence” gathered by the FBI during their investigation.
Despite having put out some of the best Elvis albums ever released, ones that could have sold as well as any RCA album (as would later be proven when RCA did finally get around to issuing material found only on our bootlegs), along with a number of titles that appealed to the diehard Elvis fans, we still kept fielding questions about “out–of–print” bootlegs. Most of these were just plain awful. The few that were worth listening to only had material that could be found on our LPs. We could not and would not issue these albums to the fans on our mailing list. A few collectors would be happy, but most would be disappointed, no matter what sort of disclaimer accompanied the description. Our warning about poor quality and lack of graphics did not dissuade; people still wanted them. We had just issued four albums at once and handled that well, why not twenty-five? No task was too great for Vic Colonna; I was Florida–bound once more the following month. Our mission was to make sure the fans got what they wanted; if they demanded it, we would do our best to provide it.