The Dorsey Shows
As soon as the tapes of the Dorsey shows arrived I called Paul with the news. Before I could even suggest a thing he said just what I wanted to hear, “We’ll go partners on this one.” I shipped him the tapes and after he had heard them, both of us wishing that two of the shows were better quality, we started in on the logistics. Really, I did. Paul was a collector first and this was rather a lark to him. I was all business and was not interested in any part of a non–profit organization. I wanted to make some real money, the old fashioned way, illegally. Quasi–illegal as far as I was concerned; we would be providing a service to collectors and fans. RCA certainly had no intention of ever releasing this material. Elvis fans would love it; where was the harm?
Before consciously deciding to flaunt the law, however, I wondered if there was a way we could legally release an album. To that end I contacted a lawyer, Bill Hertz, who directed me to John Wagner, eminent copyright attorney in Glendale. John was not sure just what the legalities were with old television shows. He suggested I call a friend of his that had experience with the recording industry, Howard Roberts, who lived in Arizona. Mr. Roberts, it turned out, was a guitar player’s guitar player. He had recorded some jazz–oriented albums a decade earlier that displayed his virtuosity. These days he was busy teaching. Not your average students, only the elite. If you were Eddie Van Halen and you wanted to learn some new riffs, Howard was the man to see. His reputation and technical expertise is the stuff of legend. A phone call to Mr. Roberts, who was very attentive and gave serious thought to my questions, did not solve anything. He was supportive and sympathetic, but in the end he said, “There’s no way you can do it legally, boot it.”
“The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” said Jack London. With that creed in mind, there was but one thing to do: Legal was out, bootleg was in. Bootlegs had been around for years, starting with a wave of eight–tracks that were in every Mom & Pop store and gas station in the sixties. They could be broken down into three categories: 1) Direct counterfeits of released albums. This happened to “Saturday Night Fever.” The album shipped gold and was returned platinum. It was a giant seller and the knock–offs were indistinguishable from the original. Robert Stigwood’s organization nearly went bankrupt. 2) “Compilation” albums: the songs were counterfeited from legitimate releases and put together in a new package. In the U.S, this was done mainly on eight–track and was short–lived; the practice still exists today in countries that do not adhere to International Copyright Laws. Since these albums have unique covers, wacky labels, and are often on colored vinyl, they are still attractive to collectors. 3) Records that consisted solely of unreleased material. These were for the fans. They are the true “bootlegs.” They were not major sellers; they circulated in an underground market primarily via mail order. Many independent stores that catered to collectors carried them. They were no competition to the artist’s catalogue; they were not responsible for lost sales. Fans wanted everything they could get their hands on, the record companies did not supply them with this material, and a niche market was created.
While the first two categories were flagrantly illegal, I had no moral dilemma with the third. No bootleggers had ever been arrested or jailed to my knowledge. The counterfeiters deserved to be punished; bootlegging unreleased material was harmless. This was not just some convenient rationalization; I honestly believed that and still do.
The first hurdle was the price: Paul had in mind a selling price of $15 and he was thinking only of the collector’s market. I was after the fan as well as the hard–core collector, and fans would be reluctant, if not hard–pressed, to part with that kind of money for a single album. The average fan would see this as just another Elvis album, one of many, not something special. Therefore, the price had to be attractive, not one that would upset the budget. It took a fair amount of convincing, but Paul saw the logic in my argument and we settled on a price of $7.98, plus seventy–five cents for shipping. Next up was actually making the record. I had no idea how to go about it, Paul did. He patiently explained, I took notes, and we would both go price shopping. First, the cover design—front and back—meant deciding on pictures to be used, type style, placement, and sizing. The pictures would be black–and–white, the title in color, and that was simple enough. Two–color was the printer’s designation for the front; the back would be one–color as the necessary printing (track names and times) would come out a negative white against the black background of the picture that would fill the entire back cover. The front would be a mélange of nine photos of equal size: eight of them from the Dorsey Shows and one from an Ed Sullivan show. We figured no one would ever call us on that; no one ever did. There were no liner notes, this was an amateurish first attempt (looking back it certainly was, but at the time it was considered a masterpiece), the first step in a journey that would produce twenty–two more albums—many of which would receive rave reviews from music critics as far–flung as Richard Weize (Bear Family Records in Germany), and as close to home as Robert Hilburn (heralded Los Angeles Times music critic for over 40 years). Our LPs would receive rave reviews in Playboy, Country Music Magazine, and many smaller, fan–oriented publications.
I had no idea just how many components blended themselves into an album when we started. I was surprised just how complex a process it was. If you must know, see Appendix II. I will never forget seeing that first master lacquer for “Elvis Presley Dorsey Shows” being readied for transport to the pressing plant. It was crated in a large box, held in place with wooden clamps affixed to the dead wax area, above and below, so that the disk itself was touching nothing but air. A single scratch would spoil the master. The mastering was done at a recording studio in Los Angeles; one I picked from the phone book. That was the only time I ever used them; all the records that followed were mastered at MCA Whitney in Glendale (later Universal–Whitney), not far from my home. That L.A. studio remembered me, however, and I heard from them later. Corporate greed reared its ugly head when Elvis died. The studio called a couple hours after the news bulletins and told me I should get another record out right away. I hung up on them.
Paul had pressed his first two bootlegs in Baltimore. We assumed that would continue until we started discussing price. Since I was next door to Los Angeles, capital of the record industry, it seemed prudent for me to check and compare costs. As it turned out, I got the job. Everything was cheaper: pressing, printing, typesetting, negatives, the works. Still, prices varied, and it took a couple weeks of calling and knocking on doors before we decided who would get the job. Also, it was not as if I could just walk in the door of RCA, Capitol, or Warner Brothers and ask where I go to get a record manufactured. Discretion was a factor; I needed to find a pressing plant that would not ask questions about “rights.” Printers, typesetters, fabricators, and negative makers were not a problem, but the actual manufacture and combining all the components could raise some eyebrows, especially since it was Elvis gracing the cover. Cash makes no enemies, and I walked into H.V. Waddell’s block–long plant on Olive Avenue in Burbank, CA, seeming as if I knew exactly what I was doing and had done it before. I did not, but they did. No prickly questions were asked. Modern Albums—the fabricator (they did work for the major labels, but turned a blind eye to anything else) delivered the covers, I delivered the labels, ordered 500 records, and paid in advance. Cost: 37¢ per disk, 3¢ for the shrink–wrap, and I forked over $200 and was told they would be ready by the end of the week. All the other costs added up to $1,300. That included the 2,500 fliers we had printed to send to potential customers. Thus, that first batch cost us three bucks each. However, since covers and labels were sitting and waiting, the next 500 would cost 40¢ each. If we could only get that far, there was some real money to be made.
Another hurdle was just who would be selling this record? Paul and I were well–known in the collecting world and we did not want offers to trade another record for our album; we needed to make some money. We planned to send out the flyers using a business name that was the same as the label, Golden Archives. That meant taking out an ad in a newspaper for three consecutive weeks declaring we were “doing business as…” and then having to deal with other paperwork. We would have to open a bank account in the company name so we could cash the checks. Setting up a business name was expensive, and seemingly unavoidable, until I thought of a way around it all. We might not be able to use our names, but Vicki Colonna, my lovely wife, could use hers. Vic Colonna was born and a problem was solved. Vicki opened an account under her maiden name; we were in business.
Next up, a Post Office box. The magic in the name Los Angeles seemed better suited for this venture than Glendale. I submitted an application at the Vermont Station in Hollywood, waited the obligatory three days for the address check, and returned to pick up my key. The little man with the thick German accent that had taken my application said something guttural, the only word I could pick out was ”Colonna,” and shuffled away. While I waited for his return my attention drifted to the ceiling speakers providing background music and my ears perked up: I was listening to “It’s Now Or Never”, one of Elvis’ giant hits and one that showcased his versatility. I thought this was a bit eerie, and it was, but it would be dwarfed by the events of the next few years. I was handed the key to Box 29408 and drove home filled with expectation.
Next step, customers. Who would be our prospective buyers? It was not as if we could take out ads in magazines, even if we could have afforded that. Paul had a small mailing list of just over two hundred fans, mostly collectors. We needed to reach more people, not only to recoup our investment, but hoping satisfied customers would generate more sales. We knew we had a product that would delight; now we had to get the news out without drawing unnecessary attention.
As it turned out, Vicki and I had gone to see Elvis in Las Vegas at the Hilton not long before and met a couple girls who ran a fan club. It all came about like this: We were seated front and center, only one couple between us and the stage (a $100 tip worked wonders in 1975), the tables perpendicular to the platform where Elvis did his stuff. As the show ended, Elvis came to the edge of the stage and casually flicked his guitar pick out into the audience. It was such a slight maneuver that it went unnoticed by just about everyone. Not me. It started to sail past my right shoulder and I grabbed at it only to have it bounce off my hand and fall to the floor. I quickly dropped to my knees in pursuit, oblivious to the shifting feet threatening my fingers, and snatched it up. I looked up to see a dozen or more curious faces wondering just what I thought I was doing. Was I the only one who noticed? Apparently, for as I rose and displayed my prize, a white mother–of–pearl pick with a gold “E” stamped in the center, the onlookers shook their heads and focused their attention back to a departing Elvis. Then came the familiar announcement, “Elvis has left the building. Thank you and good night.”
Out to the lobby we went. We found a seat on a big couch and settled back to have a drink. Seated across from us were two girls, obviously Elvis fans. When I pulled the guitar pick out of my pocket to show to Vicki, something I had not had a chance to do yet, they oohed, aahed, and asked to hold it. When they both professed to feel the vibrations I knew we were deep into Elvis territory, somewhere beyond the divide twixt fandom and fanatical. A conversation ensued that revealed this pair ran an Elvis fan club up in the San Francisco area, one that boasted over 700 members. I duly filed away their “business card” in my wallet; we headed back to our room thinking they were quirky, but nice.
The one non–record item I acquired when I purchased the collection that started it all was a poster. Not just any poster, one advertising Elvis with “The Blue Moon Boys” (Scotty Moore and Bill Black). Elvis was at the bottom of this handbill; the headliner was Hank Snow. This poster was from 1954, bona–fide original, and probably worth a hundred dollars back then. Today it is worth many thousands. Business is business, and when we needed more names for our fledgling mailing list I thought of those girls, their 700 members, and fished their card out of my wallet to give them a call. They were a bit reluctant to part with their list at first, but, when I proposed trading them the poster, it was a done deal. I later mailed them a couple copies of the Dorsey bootleg. Despite that, they never ordered a record from us. Elvis on wax was not their thing.
Now for the flyers—the advertisement for “Elvis Presley Dorsey Shows,” that would make our product irresistible. That was Paul’s job, he sent me the layout and I took it to the typesetter. Paul did a masterful job. How anyone could not buy the LP after reading Paul’s description was beyond me. Any Elvis fan would simply have to own this record. The flyers were printed (again, prices dictated ordering many more than we needed at the moment so there I was with 5,000 flyers and just under a thousand people on our mailing list. Still, I figured that at least half the people would gobble it up, that meant $4,000 in sales, and we would recoup our initial investment and each be a thousand dollars to the good in no time. Vicki, her girlfriend Genise, and I, stayed up all night addressing that first batch by hand, licking the stamps, sealing the envelopes, and then banding them together for the trip to the post office. The only time–saving device the “business” owned at that time was a rubber stamp for the return address. I sat back and waited for the money to roll in. Five months later we broke even. No one said this was going to be easy. It turned out to be much tougher than I expected.
A bit of foreshadowing also took place: not a week after those flyers were mailed I received a letter from RCA informing me that they had the exclusive rights to Elvis Presley and to cease and desist selling the “Elvis Presley Dorsey Shows”. RCA thought me a Petain, a Quisling, an Arnold; I felt Jeffersonian. RCA’s warning to back off had the opposite effect on me; I was galvanized to find more and more material they continued to ignore, and bring it to the fans.
Years later we found out that a fan in the Southeast did this with every flyer received from us. A few months later we got another letter from RCA informing us that Cuba Gooding was under exclusive contract to RCA and to cease and desist making records with performances by him. Paul and I both wondered, “Just who the heck is Cuba Gooding?” He was a bandleader. His son has had a distinguished acting career. Obviously, we were on some sort of mailing list. Strangely enough, we never got another letter like those.
How could Elvis fans not buy this record? I still wonder. And what an album it was! A couple years later we found better quality tapes of the two shows that needed improving. We remastered the LP, and sold it for five bucks. We even redid the cover, a minor but necessary cosmetic improvement. Three photos were changed, one, of course, being that from the Sullivan Shows. Around the center picture was the title and the original lettering was dark blue. Against a black background, that did not stand out very well. We were still learning. The title was more readable with larger lettering in yellow. While figuring what to do next, I continued to search for items to complete my Elvis collection. It was at the “Capitol Records Swap Meet” I made a contact that would decide my future.