Expectations at RCA Records couldn't have been much lower 20 years ago when a Danish record executive suggested putting together a box set exclusively of 1950s recordings by one of the label's artists who had been dead for more than a decade.
Even though the artist in question happened to be Elvis Presley, there was little hope that a significant number of people would have much interest in a set encompassing five hours of music and 140 songs — only a small percentage of which had been hits — from just the first seven years of Presley's recording career.
RCA officials cautiously issued the "Elvis Presley: The King of Rock 'n' Roll" package, carrying a list price of $80, hoping it might sell as many as 10,000 copies.
"They've sold 1 million boxes of 'The King of Rock 'n' Roll'," said Ernst Jorgensen, the executive from Denmark and music historian who is widely considered the most important figure in restoring not only a sense of order but also respectability to the recorded legacy of a music icon who, in the years after his death, was more often ridiculed than revered.
Before Jorgensen was hired in 1991, from his post as managing director for RCA's European-based parent company BMG, label executives treated Presley's catalog as little more than a cash cow. For years the company issued haphazardly conceived, quickly assembled compilations such as 1978's "Elvis — A Canadian Tribute," built around songs by Canadian songwriters that Presley had recorded, and "Guitar Man," a 1981 release of his country songs as posthumously remixed by longtime Presley producer Felton Jarvis.
Since Jorgensen has been in charge of organizing Presley reissues — a job he originally expected might last a year or two — a series of box sets have been released covering his studio output from the '60s and '70s and another gathering the songs he recorded for the 31 movies he starred in. He also coordinated 2002's "Elvis: 30 #1 Hits," a 31-track compilation that spent three weeks at No. 1 and remained on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart for 99 weeks.
When the RCA catalog came under Sony Music's Legacy Recordings division after the 2004 merger of the companies, it set the stage for the release in October of what represents Jorgensen's crowning achievement: "The Complete Elvis Presley Masters," a 30-CD set that brings together all 711 master recordings issued during Presley's lifetime, in the order he recorded them. Three of those CDs are filled with more than 100 rarities consisting of alternate takes, live performances and studio chatter between Elvis and his fellow musicians.
"It may have been the Mt. Everest of my life," said Jorgensen, who grew up in Europe preferring Presley to his English counterpart, Cliff Richard, and the Rolling Stones to the Beatles. "But it was worth the climb, and the view from the top is staggering."
Even Jorgensen understands that something this monumental — it sells for $749 exclusively at CompleteElvis.com — won't be for every Elvis fan. But the old thinking hasn't entirely disappeared.
"They're selling it as a limited edition, but the first edition was too limited," he said. "They made 1,000 copies and they sold out immediately. Now they're doing another run of about the same number.
"The idea of having Elvis Presley's career in a format where everybody who really wants to can know what that career was about is a thrill to me." And Jorgensen's not about to say every track on it is as good as every other.
"You cannot like everything over an 800-track repertoire. That's impossible, and that's not the point here," he said. "We wanted to make it available, to make sure there is a document of his entire career."
More than simply Super Gluing together the contents of the existing '50s, '60s and '70s complete masters box sets, Jorgensen revisited that material to see how it could be improved.
He collaborated closely with journalist Peter Guralnick, author of the exhaustively reported two-volume Presley biographies "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love."
"It's been a lot of detective work," Guralnick said in a separate interview. "It's involved finding masters that nobody ever thought would still exist. … I've been working with Ernst since about 1990, so I don't think [this project] was a matter of surprises; it was much more a matter of approaching this in a way that was honest, true to the spirit of the music. We wanted to recognize the achievement without apologizing for the man."
Both men had long bristled at those who regarded Presley as little more than an ongoing wellspring for tabloid newspaper posthumous sightings.
"When we met," Jorgensen said of first encountering Guralnick, "we had kind of a dream of restoring Elvis, taking him out of the National Enquirer world that he was in at the time. Certainly in America, and also the world at large, people could not forgive Elvis for dying under the circumstances he did. We had a dream: 'Hey, can we restore what we think is one of the most important musical legacies in the world?' It turns out that the world was in the same place as us."
There was the technical side of getting the best sound possible from master tapes upward of half a century old. Then they also sought to separate fact from fiction and, more significantly, legend from reality in telling Presley's story through both meticulously researched recording session logs and in the essay that Guralnick wrote. He lobbies for a reconsideration of the conventional wisdom that Elvis traded the uniquely creative spirit he exhibited in his first recordings for Sun Records in Memphis and then for RCA in the '50s for fame and fortune through a raft of mediocre or worse films that his manager, Col. Tom Parker, forced upon him in the '60s.
"It's true those movies weren't always good," Jorgensen said. "But it's important to recognize that 'Viva Las Vegas,' 'Return to Sender' and 'Can't Help Falling in Love' were all movie songs that were very well executed. The one who doesn't know Elvis' catalog inside out will find some great stuff that they had no idea existed."
As Guralnick writes in his essay, "For 20 years he bestrode the pop world in a manner unlike anyone else — and not, it should be noted, with a style that was static or imposed upon him. Rather, he was an artist who continued to evolve, someone constantly reaching for something not quite within his grasp."
Jorgensen, however, has attained what he sought so long to grasp. Which raises the question: After you've scaled Everest, where do you go next?
"I don't see this as the closing of a chapter," he said, "but it was one of maybe three or four things I wanted to do before doing something else in life. ... Another great thing would be a documentary, like the Beatles did with their 1996 TV series 'Anthology.' I love it — it's totally fascinating. It would be great to create a visual document of his career as well."
Jorgensen by no means expects he's done with Elvis now that "The Complete Elvis Presley Masters" is finally behind him. He's now at work on a book-CD project following Presley's days touring the South in 1954-55 with the " Louisiana Hayride," and when he's not occupied with all things Elvis, Jorgensen also operates a niche record label called Follow That Dream that issues long out-of-print music titles.
"It's a neat side thing to do," he said. "It's not going to impress the world, but it pleases me."