RR moves out, we move in
Radio Recorders was the recording studio in Hollywood where Elvis recorded all his songs for his movies. Sometime in the late ‘60s they moved from their original location to newer, more modern digs. To simplify the moving process the owner, Thorne Nogar, had his secretary contact the studios and labels that actually “owned” the many reels of outtakes accumulated from various sessions over the years. Those notified were told that they had thirty days to come and claim the tapes; if they did not come to pick them up they would be thrown away. Many reels went unclaimed when the deadline passed; the Elvis outtakes were among them. RCA had copies of all these tapes in New York, had no plans to release any of the material, and had they ever decided to it would have meant negotiating anew with the film studios that used the songs in their films. The film studios had no use for the tapes; they could not put out an Elvis album. The boxes of Elvis outtakes were slated to be tossed into the dumpster. When it came time, the engineers looked through the tapes that were destined for the landfill and took some of them, according to personal tastes. When it came to the Elvis tapes, more than one person was interested. So, they got divvied up. The tape with the “Blue Hawaii” outtakes went to an engineer who knew “Cary.” “Cary” was delighted by what he was given, thought it indiscreet to ask if anything more was available, and that was that. Until Vic and Paul came along.
When I heard from “Cary” just how the tape came into his possession I wondered aloud if there was any way to contact the other engineers. A decade had passed but, hopefully, they had saved the tapes. All “Cary” could do was point me in the right direction. The last he knew, his friend was working for a small radio station whose broadcast studios were in the basement of the Home Federal Savings & Loan building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
That’s where I headed first; it took a week before I was actually able to show up at a time when the engineer was there. After explaining how I came to be there I asked, “Do you have any other tapes?” “No. I just took one as a souvenir, only because it was Elvis. The Elvis tapes mainly went to three other guys.” He wasn’t even sure who the three were or if they still worked in the Los Angeles area. The only thing I could do was jot down the names of the ones he could remember that worked with him at that time and hope I could track one or all of them down. Even finding just one could lead me to another. Now, how to do it?
There was only one way I could think of: start calling all the recording studios in Los Angeles. If I struck out there I would move on to surrounding areas. The good thing about all this was that these men had a profession that they would stay in. They might change jobs; they would not change occupations. The bad news was: L.A. is the heart of the recording industry. There are more recording studios in L.A. County per square mile than there are statues of Buddha in Tibet. Well, almost.
After two months I began to get frustrated. When I called each studio I said, in my friendliest manner, “Hi there. I’m trying to locate A, B, or C who worked at Radio Recorders years ago. I’m writing a book about those days and I would like to interview them about the artists that recorded there. Might any of them be employed at your studio or do any of these names ring a bell?” All I did was cross off studio after studio. I was less than halfway through the list for Los Angeles alone; I wondered if I would ever find them.
Then I did. In a small studio on Melrose Avenue, down near the antique district that Vicki and I often visited, was a little reproduction facility that took up just part of a second floor. In those unpretentious rooms lay the mother lode. I talked with the fellow on the phone, amazed that I had actually been successful and tracked down one of these elusive engineers, and went with the “book story.” When we actually met I would tell him the real reason I sought him out. Better to do this face–to–face, I figured; I didn’t want to tip him off before I was actually standing right in front of him. I was worried that my interest might pique his curiosity about the value of the tapes and he might start shopping them around. In actuality, I had nothing to worry about. Who would want them more than Paul and I? I also thought that I had best be dead–honest with him; I would tell him that I wanted to make bootleg records. Unless he was some sort of goody–two–shoes who was totally opposed to bootlegs, and recording engineers did not fit that stereotype, I would be O.K.
We met, I told him exactly why I had been looking for him, and he smiled. “I’ve been thinking about those tapes for over a year now. If I hadn’t been so busy I would have tried to sell them before this. I never had a moment right after Elvis passed away; that seemed like the time to do it and get the most money. Still, Elvis wasn’t just a fad; he’s as popular now as he ever was. If you hadn’t come along I would have tried to sell them sometime this year.” So far all was going well; he wasn’t the least bit nonplussed about what I was driving at. Now it was a matter of negotiating.
“How many of the tapes do you have?” was what I wanted to know. I hoped he had at least enough to fill up an album. We had the tape from “Cary,” but the “Can’t Help Falling in Love” outtakes were so similar that we could only use a couple of them. There were only two other songs on that tape, nothing truly spectacular. I hoped that he would have some “good” songs (many of the songs from the movies were lame) or, and this would be even better, have an outtake or two that was radically different from the released version.
“I think almost forty. Somewhere close to that.” I nearly fell over. I was dumbfounded. That was a number I never expected. “Do you have any idea what you’d want for the whole batch? Remember, I’m just a humble bootlegger; I’m not some corporate giant. I don’t have deep pockets.”
“I think I’d like to get $500 for each tape. You’d have to take at least twenty of them at one time for me to consider parting with them. If you can’t do that I’d be better off trying to sell them individually and get more per tape.” Normally, in a case like this, one would try to bargain for a better price. Something told me that was not the way to play this; if I started down that road he might just decide not to sell the tapes to me. He was either a better negotiator or a better actor than I. Or both. I told him to bring in the tapes tomorrow and I would take twenty of them or none. I had to first get a glance at what the songs were and what movies they were from. We agreed to meet the following afternoon, shook hands, and my racing heart and I went down the stairs, out to the street, and to the nearest pay phone.
Paul was as dumbstruck as I. “Forty tapes! Forty. We’ve got to have them all. Do you know how many songs or how many movies we’re talking about?” I said I wouldn’t know a thing for sure until tomorrow. It seemed pointless to ask him to try and remember what was on the tapes when he was bringing them all in the next day. “You’re right, old buddy. I’m hoping there are enough good outtakes for a box set. I’ve always wanted to do that; I thought about combining the Burbank shows into one four–LP set but I liked the idea of two double albums better. This material cries out for a box set.”
We were in good shape financially; the Burbank and Viva albums had recouped costs and we were piling up some reserve money for just this kind of opportunity. Other album sales, those being “pure profit” since they had paid for themselves by this time, and we had paid for the thousands we had warehoused, put us in a good cash position. This would bring us back to more familiar territory: inventory rich and cash poor.
I was parked on Melrose Avenue well over two hours before the time we had agreed to meet. I had $10,000 in my briefcase, all crisp new hundreds, and whiled away the hours reading and smoking. I got out of the car about twenty times, full of nervous energy, paced back and forth, and then sat back in the car. I couldn’t appear too anxious; I might wind up paying more. One thing for sure, I was going home that day with lots of reels of tape.
At two o’clock I went up the stairs, actually crossed my fingers, and knocked on the door. The red light was on, I thought I might have to wait a few minutes, but the door opened immediately. “Come on in. I was just making cassette copies of a couple of the tapes that I actually listened to a few times. I’ll probably want to hear them again someday. The boxes are all over there.” He must have come in the back way. I would have noticed him lugging all those tapes up the stairs during the time I was waiting. What a pile it was! Forty boxes of ten–inch reel–to–reel tapes take up a fair amount of space. There were four stacks of ten tapes each. One was opened and empty; the one he was copying for himself. He did it on a high–speed duplicator and made a cassette of a thirty–minute reel in just a couple minutes.
I sorted through the boxes, all nicely labeled, and tried to make sense out of what was there. It was obvious that we wanted it all, only taking twenty tapes would leave too much good material behind. There were only two, possibly three, tapes that were not worth the money. These contained just a few takes of one song, only seven or eight minutes; the rest of the tapes contained multiple song titles. None of the songs had fewer than four takes.
I picked out twenty boxes, handed over the envelope with the cash, and said I would be back next week for the rest. It was that easy. We now had a trove of studio session outtakes. Just how good they were I would not know until I got over to MCA Whitney and had Larry make cassettes that I could take home and listen to. I didn’t have a reel–to–reel machine that would play these big reels at the 15 ips speed used by recording studios.
Larry made two sets of cassettes; I mailed a set to Paul and then went home to listen to what we had. The songs were from four movies: “Wild in the Country,” “Blue Hawaii,” “Kid Galahad,” and “Paradise—Hawaiian Style.” We had a real hodgepodge of material: some of it outstanding, much of it interesting to some degree, and the rest of nominal interest. The volume of outtakes we had to work with was key; we could certainly make a box set. Could we do so and avoid being repetitious? A few outtakes of a song would delight; beyond a certain number, especially if the takes were quite similar, it could become boring.
I left the final decisions about what would be included to Paul. Vicki and I had gone house–hunting. After four years as renters we wanted a place of our own. All the hard work was paying off; we were able to scrape together a down payment and moved into our new home in February 1979. While we moved, Paul sifted through a mountain of material. As things turned out, we were able to put together many of the best takes and add studio material from the East Coast. Paul tracked down the perfect complements to what I had unearthed. His four–LP box set would become a reality.