Urban legend verified
Paul didn’t hold out much hope, but he called the number he got from Lichter. The fellow lived in Texas, was quite amiable during their conversation, and assured Paul he had the tape. Paul asked him if he could play a sample over the phone, he did, and Paul was just blown away. After countless false leads, convinced that the tape, if it existed, could only be in the hands of Shelby Singleton, owner of Sun Records, it finally surfaced.
The question now was, what did this fellow want for it? Expecting to hear some ridiculous price, Paul was pleased to find that the man collected films. He wanted 16mm prints of “That’s the Way It Is’ and “Elvis on Tour.” I rented the films again, took them out to the valley to the place that made us the negative of “Elvis TV Special,” and was told to stop back in a week. It wasn’t cheap, these films were feature–length, and in color. The “reversal” prints (terminology used when making a print from a print, avoiding the necessity of first making a negative) wound up costing almost $1,500. This was a small price to pay for the tape everyone wanted; the one many were convinced didn’t exist.
Paul arrived in Texas, took a cab to the address given, rang the doorbell holding four large, round, metal film containers, and was met by a man best described as the stereotypical “biker dude.” He had tattoos too numerous to count, a long, braided ponytail, and wore black leather boots, jeans, a belt buckle the size of Rhode Island with the required Harley–Davidson® logo, mirrored sunglasses, and a jeans jacket over a Grateful Dead tee shirt. Paul was asked to leave his shoes outside, and stepped across the threshold into another world. Paul later told me, “I wondered for a minute if I was going to leave there alive. Any sane person would have bolted for the sidewalk. I walked in. There were Nazi flags and emblems hanging on the wall, a gun cabinet with enough weapons to arm the neighborhood, a glass display case full of wicked–looking knives, and over in a corner, atop a pedestal, was a bust of Adolf Hiltler. In the middle of the living room sat a motorcycle with more chrome than a dozen 1950s Cadillacs. We went down a hall, the walls covered with posters from biker rallies and NRA conventions, and into a den that featured a black leather couch, black leather recliner, and a coffee table with copies of High Times magazine held in place by a gleaming skull paperweight with red, flashing eyes. Black and chrome stereo components filled three shelves; there were speakers in the corner with Harley and Dead stickers plastered all over them. Overflowing ashtrays and a couple dozen beer cans and bottles completed the decorating scheme. If, at that point, three or four more biker–types entered the room and said, ‘Tie him up.’ I wouldn’t have been surprised. It was unsettling, but the guy acted perfectly normal and said, ‘Have a seat, let me play that tape for you.’”
It was unmistakably Elvis, definitely Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, but without Johnny Cash. It turned out that Johnny Cash went shopping with his wife while the boys were jamming. Thus, the fabled “Million Dollar Quartet” reunion was only a “Million Dollar Trio” when the singing took place. No matter. It would be interesting to see what the difference would be with the trademark bass of “The Man in Black,” but these fellows did all right. The quality was darn good, we could produce a wonderful record that would delight and astound the fans. An anomaly occurred more than once while the cassette played, one that Paul noticed but didn’t attach much significance to. It sent me jumping out of my chair. To Paul, it was a minor glitch that he knew Larry would smooth over when making the master. The highlight of the tape was Elvis’ rendition of the Pat Boone hit, “Don’t Forbid Me.” Oh my! How Elvis could take a song and make it his own. He did it here, and he made it sound so natural as he sang the song at a different tempo with new emphasis and inflections, one would have thought he’d rehearsed it. No, it was just a quick run–through for his friends; one could not help but be awed.
Paul asked if it was possible to get a duplicate from the same person this tape came from. That would eliminate loss of quality by going a generation further away from the original, a problem in analog days. A call was made, the friend agreed, and a couple hours later a very pretty girl came in with the cassette she had just duplicated for Paul. After a restless night at a motel, Paul flew back home, made a copy for himself, and sent me the tape.
Not wanting to take any chances, I hurried over to MCA Whitney to give it to Larry. I didn’t dare put it in my car player; just my luck it would jam. I’d have Larry make me a high–speed duplicate and would be listening to it five minutes after I arrived. Larry could do his thing while I leaned back in the car’s front seat, volume cranked, and enjoyed what we’d been after for so long. I went back to the beginning a couple times, trying to understand the dialogue between songs, and it was almost a half hour before I got to the point, about eleven or twelve minutes into the tape, where I noticed a fade out, silence, a click, silence, and a fade in. It only took up about three seconds, but that was enough. I said, out loud, “You gotta be kidding me!” I backed up the tape, listened closely, and knew I wasn’t imagining things. Incredible!
That story I had heard years ago in Denver, the one I dismissed as poppycock, was true. What I was hearing was the fade from one “track” to the next, and that could only mean the original source for this cassette was an eight–track tape. The “click” confirmed it; that was a sound unique to the eight–track format. Whether it was called “Country Jam,” as I’d been told, or how it was packaged, we’ll never know. It must have been; how could someone have made that up? When was this tape made? How many were made? Where did the people who put out this “anonymous” eight–track bootleg get their copy of the tape? How many people listened to it not knowing what they were hearing? How could this tape never have circulated beyond just a few Elvis fans? They knew what they had; yet it stayed virtually out of sight for years. Go figure.
I would have loved to backtrack from the girl who came over to give Paul the tape, but we had more important things to do. Larry was hard at work erasing the fades and clicks; putting the tape together seamlessly, so that no trace of the eight–track existed. He matched things up perfectly; there was no way to tell. He got rid of some tape hiss, cleaned everything up as best he could, and cut the master lacquer. I took it down to Waddell’s, told them to hang onto it while we figured out the cover and label, and Paul and I tossed ideas back and forth. This was the big one; we wanted it to look that way.
There is a famous photo from that day; one most fans have seen. The group is clustered behind Elvis, seated before the keyboard; a girl is perched on the end of the piano itself. That was the cover; it couldn’t be anything else. However, it was black & white. Ger Rijff to the rescue; he “colorized” the photo and sent it to us. It looked superb. It was obvious that the color had been painted in, but that didn’t matter. The point wasn’t to fool anyone, simply to make the album as attractive as possible. A bright red border around the centered photo, along with some fancy yellow lettering, and we had what we wanted. Ger had a great suggestion for the back cover: under the liner notes put a picture of one of the large boxes of reel–to–reel tape that had the studio outtakes, the ones we had purchased from the Radio Recorders engineers. They were obviously quite old; the Million Dollar Quartet tape made that day at Sun studios probably went in a box just like these. That was the look we wanted; it was late September by the time we had al the details attended to and were getting ready to release another LP.
We would put out two albums simultaneously; “The ’68 Comeback Vol. 2” had waited long enough. Beyond those, we were right back where we started. All we had left to put out was the complete “Loving You” sessions. We now agreed that this recording session was so distinct, so totally unique, that it deserved to be heard in its entirety. Our qualms about fans feeling gypped because they had an LP with only one song had disappeared. Listening to the evolution of the song, the experimentation, the undecidedness, these were the “insider” moments that would make the album a favorite with the fans.
We were sure the first Milton Berle show would surface, along with the Sinatra special. Those two would headline “The Rockin’ Rebel Vol. IV.” We had the lead song for the album, nothing else. Just after Rebel III was released, I got a tape of “Maybelline” from a Louisiana Hayride performance. We moaned about the poor timing, but it was nice to have something salted away. We even started to think about contacting the woman with the Tupelo shows. We’d contacted Bill Randall, owner of the film “A Day in the Life of a DJ,” but for the money he wanted, he needed to talk to sheiks in Saudi Arabia. That 1955 film, also know as “The Pied Piper of Cleveland,” was supposed to be about Randall, but a young kid named Presley showed up at the high school, swiveled and shook, and Randall’s importance suddenly approximated that of the janitor. Something would turn up; it always did.
After the Harry Fox fiasco, we were back on full alert. Our phone calls from home were coded, nothing that was difficult to decipher, just some assurance that if we were being “bugged,” we could cast some ambiguity on what was said. When we discussed album plans, we used pay phones. I drove miles out of the way to get to the storage areas; Paul did the same. Whenever I went to Waddell’s I drove around the block two or three times. I scanned sidewalks and street corners, futilely, for an unmarked car with government plates and a couple of bored men in the front seat. With no contact since “gunslinger” (the moniker we gave Will Garrett) went to Paul’s mother’s house, and not a peep on my end since Robert followed my instructions and told the “All American Boy” he wanted an attorney present before speaking with the FBI, we wondered if the whole thing might have “gone away.” It seemed possible; it was no big deal to begin with. Fans were ecstatic; interest in Elvis was up thanks to our output, the quantity of records that we distributed had to be insignificant to a global corporation that talked millions while we dealt in thousands. The material we put out was coupled with RCA’s failure to release anything of interest; we were doing them a favor. They showed their appreciation by putting the “Don’t’ Think Twice, It’s All Right” jam session on a compilation album. Straight from our bootleg, but they forgot to mention that. RCA sure needed some guidance; apathy dominated over there and Joan Deary could not be solely to blame. Even if she was in charge of Elvis releases, someone should have stepped in and insisted that Elvis deserved far better than lackluster compilations.
The weeks spent finalizing the albums were filled with turmoil. Another August rolled around; another trip back east for Vicki and the kids. One thing different about this one: after she was there for a week she called to say she wasn’t coming back.