|CARETAKER OF THE ELVIS CATALOG
By Bob Mehr, GoMemphis.com
Ernst Jorgensen is no stranger to Memphis, but that doesn't mean he's grown accustomed to the city's August heat.
"For a Scandinavian with blond hair and pale skin, it's very rough," says Jorgensen, with a chuckle. "But most people in
Denmark would love to be in Memphis to celebrate Elvis, so I shouldn't complain."
The Danish-born Jorgensen, who serves as the director and caretaker of the Presley catalog, will make his annual
pilgrimage to the Bluff City to mingle with fans and longtime friends during Elvis Week. On Sunday, he'll appear at
Graceland to present a preview of the forthcoming box set, The Complete Elvis Presley Masters, as well as several other
related titles from the boutique Presley imprint FTD.
For nearly two decades, Jorgensen has been the key figure in the rebirth of the King's recorded legacy -- a now-thriving
business that has helped restore Elvis' reputation as an artist and continues to feed Presley fans new and important
For Jorgensen, the current state of the Presley catalog is far a cry from its nadir in the mid-'80s. "You have to remember
the ridicule that was heaped upon Elvis after he died. Everybody searched for some darker story. It definitely wasn't hip
to like Elvis at that time," says Jorgensen. "In the '80s we were so taken with ourselves and our current present, it wasn't
time yet to duck back into history and examine things like Elvis or rock and roll. It took a decade for people to turn around
and want to go in and re-explore."
In 1991, Jorgensen -- who'd been a managing director for international music giant BMG -- was hired by RCA to explore
the possibilities held in the Elvis catalog. "I thought the job, it might last a year or two," he says. "At that time, the basic
idea was to completely redo the Elvis catalog from scratch on CD, both in box sets and singular releases."
Jorgensen's first project was The King of Rock 'n' Roll box, documenting Presley's '50s recordings. "The label expected to
sell 10,000 copies and we sold 500,000," says Jorgensen. "That gave the label faith in the perception of who Elvis' fans
were. And it opened up a complete catalog overhaul in the '90s."
For Jorgensen, his efforts in expanding the catalog during that decade dovetailed with a wider reappraisal of Presley.
"We were able to shed new light on his music, and that coincided with Peter Guralnick's wonderful (biographies) of Elvis.
It was as if by the late 1990s people were willing to forget 'tabloid Elvis' as presented by the National Enquirer and
magazines like that, and go back to really see Elvis as an artist."
The Presley campaign culminated in 2002 with the release of 30 #1 Hits, which included the Junkie XL remix of "A Little
Less Conversation," a hit that propelled the album to some 12 million in worldwide sales. "With the success of 30 #1 Hits
the game shifted," says Jorgensen. "Having redone the catalog, the aim became to secure a new generation of fans. We
knew there was a much bigger audience out there."
Jorgensen continued his efforts, repackaging Presley's work through a variety of themed collections. More recently, since
Sony/Legacy took over the RCA catalog in 2008, Jorgensen has been busy putting the spotlight on the key albums in
Presley's career. Last year he developed expanded "Legacy Editions" of the 1969 comeback effort From Elvis in
Memphis, and put together a live-in-Las Vegas package, which combined On Stage with Elvis in Person albums.
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This year's Elvis Week will find Jorgensen and his partner Roger Semon unveiling their most ambitious project to date, The Complete Elvis Presley
Masters, which is due in mid-October (for $749 at completeelvis.com). More than three years in the making, the 30-CD box set features 711
chronological master recordings, as well as 103 additional tracks, plus a 240-page hardbound book. "It's a dream come true for a compilation producer
and historian," says Jorgensen.
The other major release due this fall is Viva Elvis, the soundtrack to a Cirque du Soleil stage show in Las Vegas, akin to the Beatles' Love project, which
will be released in November (and retail for $11.98). Produced by Erich van Tourneau, the music is a postmodern take on Presley that "re-imagines the
King's own vocal performances in a broad variety of musical settings, from Delta blues to rockabilly, from raw soul to gospel, from Southern folk to Vegas
pop, while incorporating elements of garage rock, punk, urban and hip-hop."
Though he's a self-described purist, Jorgensen is enthusiastic about Viva Elvis. "I never thought that anything like what they've done could be done," he
says. "They've taken the songs and explored them on an individual basis ... let's just say you need to hear it. All the fans of Elvis' music do."
In addition to his catalog efforts, Jorgensen is working on a book that will delve into Presley's early years -- specifically, the first 18 months of his career,
from his initial sessions at Sun to his signing with RCA in 1956. He's been researching the book heavily in and around Memphis, digging up
never-before-seen photos and eyewitnesses to Presley's rapid regional rise. "I've been to more Mississippi and Arkansas towns than most Southerners,"
says Jorgensen, with a laugh.
As for the long-term prospects for Presley catalog and music, Jorgensen is hopeful that the groundwork that's been laid since the early-'90s will last for a
"We may not be able to get future generations to go out and buy his music by the millions -- because music is a language, it's part of a culture and it
should develop -- but there will always be those who want to know how things started," he says. "And Elvis will always be a part of that understanding."