Just like Babe Ruth
In addition to deciding what our next album was to be I had a personal decision to make. I no longer had time to both collect and sell Elvis; the maxim “don’t mix business with pleasure” was all too clear. Things were happening quickly, I didn’t have time to collect any longer, and I decided to sell my collection. A couple of collectors I constantly saw at the Capitol Records Swap Meet had been by our house on more than one occasion. They were duly impressed with the completeness and the mint quality of my specimens. When I told them I was willing to part with most items they couldn’t believe their luck. Add to that, I just could not be greedy—I simply wanted a fair price, not the absurd asking prices dealers demanded for many of these items. Paul got what little he needed, mainly those Sun 78s. Randy Jones and Glen and Linda Midcap, swap meet regulars I had become chummy with, gobbled up the rest. Randy was quite a character; we dubbed him “The Lion” thanks to his girth and long, scraggly blonde locks. Perhaps the only thing organized in his life was his Elvis collection. Glen and Linda were big Elvis fans but otherwise “regular people” (many collectors were rather strange), and when they visited our house Vicki and Linda hit it off immediately. Soon Glen and Linda would be valuable “employees” in addition to being good friends.
With collecting no longer a factor, I could now devote all my time to the business. Two major developments had taken place: Paul had received an audience tape from a fellow collector that intrigued us; “Cary” had introduced me to a friend of his, J.R., a transplanted Philadelphian who wrote for television. These events changed everything.
J.R. was a big fan of Elvis and one other artist, the one “Cary” liked; we became good friends. With the three of us gathered at J.R.’s house one day in the spring of 1977, “Cary” produced two tapes for us: one was some forty–five minutes of Elvis in the studio at Radio Recorders in Hollywood, the place where all the movie songs were recorded, doing songs from “Blue Hawaii.” Most of the tape was taken up with over twenty-five takes (many false starts) of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Another song from that movie rounded out the rest of the tape. I was astounded; I never dreamed I would be privy to an Elvis recording session. Then he put on the other tape—all I remember thinking is, “Omigod, am I dreaming?”
When Elvis returned from Germany and was discharged from the U.S. Army, he went off to Hollywood to continue his film career. We all know that. Before doing so, he gave three charity concerts: two in Memphis, with the proceeds going to various local groups, and the other in Hawaii, to benefit a planned memorial for the USS Arizona. He had previously appeared on a Frank Sinatra TV Special titled “Welcome Home Elvis.” After that it was nothing but movies for eight years. Thus, the only three times Elvis appeared live between 1957 and 1968 were those three benefit concerts. “Cary” handed us a tape of the 1961 Hawaii concert. He went on to explain that only half a dozen people in the world had a copy and that the performance was recorded by the disc jockey associated with the radio station promoting the show. He had placed a reel–to–reel tape recorder, microphone attached, on a table at the back of the stage. A famous actor became a friend of said disc jockey and happened to be an Elvis fan. Mr. Actor got a copy, apparently only the third or fourth one ever given out. “Cary” met Mr. Actor over some business deal, they became friends, and when it was revealed “Cary” was an Elvis fan, he was given a copy of the concert. “Cary” had had this tape for years. He never told a soul. He said it was ours to enjoy but it could not be given to anyone else. I asked if I could share it with Paul and “Cary” said that would be permissible. He knew my word was good as gold and if I vouched for Paul, that was all he needed to hear.
So there we were, two bootleggers in search of unreleased Elvis material and we had been handed a couple prizes beyond our wildest dreams. One, we could do nothing but listen to; the other was interesting, but certainly not anything we could turn into an album. Elation mixed with frustration, an odd combination. After repeatedly listening to the recording session tape, we agreed that the quality was superb, equal to anything RCA had ever put on record, but the variation between takes was just not great enough to warrant making an album. We had one–quarter to one–third of an album at best, nothing more. If only we could somehow come up with more of this material, what a coup that would be. Just how to accomplish that we did not know; “Cary” had not been forthcoming about just how he obtained this gem. I would press him on that, but first we had an album to create.
Back to that audience tape Paul had, the one that we thought was “maybe” good enough for a record. John Herman, a regular customer that Paul knew, sent Paul a tape that he had recorded when he saw Elvis’ 1976 New Year’s Eve performance in Pittsburgh, PA. Like all audience tapes, the source was obvious. Unlike all the others, this one was actually quite listenable. The clarity was a cut above; the crowd noise seemed somehow muted. I found, as did Paul, that when one first listened to this recording, it seemed little more than passable. However, as one continued to listen, the ears seemed to adjust. The darn thing actually grew on you! Soon, the audio imperfections seemed trivial; the performance was nothing short of enthralling. There were three reasons this tape was unique: the date, the length of the show (90 minutes (versus the usual under–an–hour, there–he–is, there–he–goes), and the song selection. A longer show meant greater deviation from the standard repertoire; the date meant “Auld Lang Syne” would be one of the songs. That might not sound like such a big deal, but to Elvis fans, him singing anything they hadn’t heard before was something special. Plus, there was a shared intimacy here: spending New Year’s Eve with Elvis was as good as it gets.
It was decided. Our next baby would be a double LP. Full color inside and out. Another first for the bootleggers. Pictures galore from the show, provided by Ohioan Bob Heis, who made his living attending every Presley show possible and snapping away. Paul went to work designing the album while I handed the tape over to Larry Boden and asked him to work his magic. The album was scheduled for release in May 1977. Still in the afterglow of our Bicentennial year, we were all infused with patriotic fervor. Accordingly, the theme colors for the album were red, white, and blue. The pictures were set against a blue background and those on the front cover were bordered by a thin stars–and–stripes design. Those red and white stripes conspired to give us fits. The printer called me to come look at the first few covers and it was obvious we had a problem. The four colors were printed separately, laid one atop another, and blue, black, red, and yellow melded to produce all the shades required. With separate negatives for each color, alignment was critical; alignment was the problem. That thin, red & white striped border, wavy like a flag, was just small enough so that the slightest deviation from true registration caused the red and blue adjoining one another to bleed and produce sickly yellow stripes instead of white ones. That would never do. Bob, our cover printer, tried again, and again, improvement was slight. I dreaded the time and cost involved in redoing the cover. This project was already many times more expensive than our previous efforts. Should we spend thousands more hoping to do better, or settle for the best Bob could do with the negatives on hand?
To further complicate matters, I had sent out the flyers for this album when I brought the negatives to Bob. That was standard practice; the influx of orders directly after a mailing provided funds to pay the pressing plant. We had an initial order of 5,000 albums for this one; and 10,000 covers were ordered. Big bucks, big hopes, big trouble. When the initial orders arrived it was usually a week, at most, before I picked up the finished product and got packages on their way. That was acceptable. Since we had, by now, established a reputation for speedy delivery, that six– to eight–week gap between receipt and shipping so prevalent in the industry was not an option.
We couldn’t send out a product that was less than perfect; more orders were arriving every day. This album was taking on a life of its own; this seemed to be the one all the fans had been waiting for. Bob struggled, I fretted, and finally we had postcards printed up apologizing for the delay. Mailed to everyone who ordered, they informed customers that a foul–up at the printers occurred and the albums would soon be ready for shipping.
With that temporary respite, I turned my attention to two other pressing matters; ones not involving record pressing. Patrick’s days as an only child were numbered. Vicki was due in June. Lisa Marie Theaker arrived on June 18, shortly after the “Rockin’ With Elvis New Year’s Eve” album was finally shipped. How considerate; I’ve always loved her for that. Why Lisa Marie? Wasn’t that Elvis’ daughter’s name? Sure was, still is, but we liked the name and I reasoned that none of her peers would ever make the connection and tease her about being named after someone associated with her daddy’s business. For the record: I would NEVER name a son Elvis.
As if a new album and a new baby were not enough, one other matter did not go as planned. Vicki had turned 21 a year ago and an inheritance of nearly $10,000 was disbursed in April 1977. There was only one thing to do with the money: invest it in the business. We bought 25,000 names, had an eight–page booklet flyer printed advertising the records, films, and paraphernalia, and I dutifully trucked the names and flyers to Send Service. We had another 8,000–plus names Paul had obtained from a couple fan clubs; this mailing of nearly 35,000 flyers dwarfed anything done to date. We also offered a “Special” that we hoped would appeal to new customers: All six albums for $40. The five singles were priced at $7.98 and the New Year’s double was $10.98, so this represented a savings of $11. I hoped more than a few would splurge; you know what happened.
I delivered the material to Send Service at the beginning of July 1977 but they were backed up, and would be unable to tackle this mailing until the first week of August. Fooey. Nothing to do but wait. Expenses were huge and we needed the response from this large mailing just to pay bills. We also hoped to do a bit better than the previous norm, since one–quarter of the mailing was going to fan club members.
There are but four things that are unique to America: baseball, the ice cream cone, Mickey Mouse, and Elvis Presley. Think baseball and but one name is at the top of the list—Babe Ruth. Think rock ‘n’ roll and it comes down to one man—Elvis Presley. It was shortly after two o’clock in the afternoon and I was in the kitchen at 515 Clement Drive fixing us some lunch. Vicki and Lisa (Patrick was now in Nursery School) watched TV in the living room. A strangled cry of distress caught my attention. Vicki gasped, “Sam, come here, quick!” I hurried into the living room to find her pointing, finger trembling, at the television. There on the screen was the news bulletin: “Elvis Presley, dead in Memphis, at age 42.” It was August 16, the same day Babe Ruth died.