Waiting for Godot
While debating what other items to select from the glut of Elvis material now on the market, NBC collected some material out of its archives for an Elvis special they planned to broadcast. I have said many times, “It often seemed as if we were fated to do what we did.” Here is just one of the examples why: On my way to and from the pressing plant, I passed a record store. It was called Turning Point Records, and I always thought it would be cool to have our records in a real store. On my way back from picking up the “From the Waist Up” LP, I stopped in and asked if they would be interested in carrying our albums. Tom, the owner, was reluctant to buy them because his clientele was a younger crowd and Elvis was not a big seller. I asked if he would just take five of each on consignment; he had nothing to lose. The next time I stopped by was after picking up our first batch of “The Legend Lives On.” I simply wanted to give him five copies of that one. I was pleasantly surprised when he said he had sold the other albums and wanted more. We had never discussed price, and when he asked what he owed me I said, “Why don’t I just take a couple cassettes? I need the new Barbra Streisand and David Bowie’s latest. Just give me those and the debt is paid in full.” Tom was a good friend from then on; another win–win situation. He made money with no outlay; I was tickled to see our records in an actual record store. Tom probably sold a couple hundred albums over the next four years; I took a couple dozen cassettes for payment. In 1981, I bought the store; it did not carry Elvis bootlegs after that.
Tom’s store manager was named Travis; as laid back as can be and a throwback to a decade earlier, when hippies were “hip.” Travis had two speeds—at rest and asleep. I discovered this when he came with the store after I bought Tom out; it was just impossible to get Travis to move quickly. However, he was quite knowledgeable, and did everything correctly. He was well–liked by the clientele, and had a face like a kid in a Campbell’s Soup ad—always smiling. I forgave his lack of alacrity many times; after all, he was a prime reason for our success.
Travis had a friend named Andy; Andy worked at a place called Compact Recorders in Studio City. Compact did duplicating work for NBC. For their hastily thrown–together half hour special the night of Elvis’ death (ABC had one that night also; CBS aired their special the next night), NBC went to its archives and pulled out the kinescope of Elvis’ second Milton Berle Show appearance. They then sent it over to Compact to have it transferred to videotape. A rush job, it was at Compact before five that afternoon (Elvis had died less than three hours earlier) and back at NBC by eight that evening so they could compile the special that followed the eleven o’clock news. Of all the technicians there, the job wound up on Andy’s desk.
Travis had mentioned to Andy that a customer was making Elvis bootlegs and his store was selling them. Andy made a ¾” videotape copy that he set aside for his personal collection; he then asked Travis if I would like one. I must have gone to the door a dozen times two evenings later, one for every passing car, hoping it was Travis. When he finally arrived I met him in the middle of the lawn, grabbed the tape from his hands, and ran inside to put it into my videotape machine. Paul had called a few times; he couldn’t wait. This was a coup. Travis made it inside a few minutes later (he had, after all, almost a hundred feet to cover), and I was already on the phone describing to Paul what I was seeing and would expedite to him the next day. The clips were sensational. Elvis did “Hound Dog” and “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” The “Hound Dog” performance was apparently so risqué the camera seemingly moved off of Elvis to show only audience reaction. This was live TV, and Elvis shook them up. I watched the tape six or eight times (it was only ten minutes long, just the Elvis segments—two songs and some banter with Milton Berle); after a couple viewings I gave Travis $100 to give to Andy and $20 for himself. What a skinflint I was; it was worth five times that much. The tape was transferred to film and added to our film catalogue; the audio was copied and set aside for a project Paul had been dreaming of. America’s most famous rock ‘n’ roller would have another album before a year had passed: “The Rockin’ Rebel” was now in pre–production.
The “Travis and Andy Show” would soon make another appearance, one that would completely overshadow this one. For now, it was back to selecting more items for the catalogue and getting settled in our new house. Yes, with Lisa’s arrival we needed another bedroom. Clement Drive had but two; we found a three–bedroom for rent on Palm Drive, just two blocks away, and moved in September. The proximity meant most things could be moved quickly and easily in the station wagon; only the appliances and a couple large pieces of furniture were trucked. With the entire hubbub over Elvis showing no signs of easing off, it was late November before the house had a settled look. Murphy’s Law: after getting all the boxes unpacked and everything put where it belonged, I had to go find the boxes with Christmas decorations. They were at the bottom of the pile.
The book, “Echoes of the Past,” the one that I was checking printing costs for, was eighty pages of photos, all of Elvis in the fifties. Most had never been published before. Getting a book printed was far different from making albums; printing costs varied widely, far more than pressing costs. I wanted the book printed on heavy, glossy stock; the initial (and final) order would be for 10.000 copies. I got six different estimates and was astounded by the difference in price. We wound up paying just under $11,000 for the job; the firm that came up with the low bid was right there in Glendale. The highest bid was $35,000; others were in the teens and twenties. It pays to shop around. We priced the book at $9.98; after selling 1,000 copies we would break even and every sale after that would be pure profit. I had not planned on ordering that many initially, but the printing adage, “The more you order the less the unit cost,” dictated the final number. The high bidder wanted $27,000 for five thousand books. The fellows that did the job came up with a figure of just over $6,000 for twenty–five hundred books (the number I originally planned to order); when I saw the rates for higher quantities I opted for ten thousand.
We offered another book that served as a complement to “Echoes of the Past,” a book published in Denmark, “Elvis: Recording Sessions”. While Ger’s book was nothing but photos, this one was filled with incredibly detailed information about all of Elvis’ studio sessions from the very first ones at SUN up through his sessions for RCA in 1977. Just why any fan would want all this data was beyond me, but apparently some did. It mattered not to me who played zither or xylophone, but some lads in Copenhagen were obsessed with this and put it all into book form. To me, this book was a bore. Fans liked it and we sold thousands.
Wholesaling was now an integral part of our business. As our catalogue and reputation grew, others wanted to offer our albums. The “Echoes” and “Recording Sessions” books were now offered to dealers at wholesale prices. We bought the “Recording Sessions” books for $1 each, the same price we paid to print the “Echoes” book. Our first order was for 1,000 copies. (Had the Dutch authors demanded anything more I simply would have printed it myself, for less.), We could, therefore, afford to sell them at a low price to dealers; dealers could then sell them at our retail price and we were not competing with them. The “Echoes” book was $3.00 wholesale; the “Recording Sessions” was $1.50 (retail was $3.50). Single albums were $3.50 wholesale, and the minimum order was ten LPs (postage included). The “New Year’s Eve” 2LP set was $5.00. Ten LPs total, not ten per title. We knew the albums were worth every penny, and we wanted dealers to sell our albums. We made money; they made money. I shipped many of the smaller dealers a few dozen of our catalogues. They could sell the albums direct and the buyer would save on postage. For all our other items they came to us.
We were working on another project that summer of 1977, something we really wanted to do but hesitated to follow through on. I had done some research about advertising in a national magazine. The big ones were off–limits, but there were so many magazines on the market that I wondered if we could find one likely to be read by our fan base and not be that widely known. Affordability was another factor; we could invest a couple thousand dollars to satisfy our curiosity, but tens of thousands were out of our league. Country Music Magazine filled the bill. I met with an advertising rep, and we bought a half–page ad for the Dorsey Shows that appeared in the September 1977 issue. This was all decided before that fateful August day. To deflect attention away from Vic, and perhaps muddy the waters, the LP was billed as “Only available in Europe.” The address where the orders would be received was in Capistrano Beach, some sixty miles south of Glendale. Buddy, a friend for many years, said I could use his home address; the company name used was Golden Archives. Should anyone ever come a–calling Buddy would say he bought the records at a Swap Meet. I knew Buddy would never let me down. He was one of those rare people whose word was his bond. That ad generated almost three hundred orders; Buddy sent the envelopes to me two or three times a week. More importantly, those folks then got the catalog from Vic. After the initial crush, I just gave Buddy a couple dozen boxed LPs and he filled in the address, sent them, and kept the checks. Over a year later, the occasional order still washed ashore in Capistrano. Buddy left too soon; a myocardial infarction before he was 60. I miss you, old friend; I never thought a heart as big as yours would ever stop beating.
We ordered more names from our old standby, Brookville, and also from Candlelight, a company that had been around for a bit and had just offered the first of a number of Elvis collections—a box set of hits that had nothing unavailable elsewhere. It was just more repackaging, but it outsold our bootlegs by a wide margin. Of course, they could advertise their product openly, but one wonders: if we had been able to advertise on TV, would the fans have favored something they had never heard before over the tried–and–true hits? With the exception of the New Years set, I was disappointed by demand for our albums. Country Music magazine was not a true indicator of how we would do nationally. Perhaps we just caught some impulse buyers at the tail end of the Elvis hysteria.
We now had almost 10,000 names on our core list, those that had purchased from us. They would all get our new catalogue in time for the holidays. The mailing and printing costs were staggering, over $30,000. With all the new items never before offered by us, we hoped the response would be impressive.
A new baby, a new home, and 150,000 new names receiving our catalogue heading into Christmas; quite a bit different from just a year ago. All our bills were paid, everyone on our Christmas list got a much nicer gift than ever before, and we crossed our fingers and waited. Most of the windfall profits had been reinvested in inventory and this huge mailing. If ever there was a time to cash in, this was it. Catalogues would be delivered the first week in December. We’d be working around the clock to make sure everyone got the items they ordered in time for Christmas. We were broke again, but not for long. Santa was on his way. The waiting was the hardest part.