Listening #30

"Good career move."—Michael O'Donoghue on the death of Elvis Presley

No one was shocked when RCA Records swung into action after Elvis Presley died, repackaging and reselling every take of every song he'd ever recorded. After all, nearly two decades earlier, they'd actually had a dress rehearsal for the loss of their most valuable property.

In 1958, Elvis Presley was conscripted into the US Army. After basic training in Texas, the king of rock'n'roll was sent to work as a Jeep driver in Freiburg, West Germany, far from the nearest recording studio or movie lot. Presley's manager, the old carny who called himself Colonel Tom Parker, wangled a two-month draft deferment so Elvis could finish filming King Creole for Hal Wallis and Paramount Pictures, but RCA still faced an 18-month moratorium on new output by the greatest cash cow in their stable (footnote 1). You could almost feel sorry for them. You could also just imagine the conversation around the boardroom table:

"We need product. What's in the vaults?"

"There's some of that hillbilly junk we got when we bought the Sun Records contract."

"Good. What else?"

"There's one song left over from Jailhouse Rock, and there are a couple of B sides still floating around. Looks like we've got ten songs in all that have never been on an LP."

"Okay. Tell ya what to do: Put five songs on one side, and the other five on the other. Then get me a picture of Presley in his uniform—only this time, he's behind the wheel of a pink Cadillac, see? Put that on the cover, and call it A Date With Elvis. Now comes the genius part: Put next year's calendar on the back, so the girls can count the days till he comes back home." [fade to evil cackle]

Did that decision, and others like it, signal a certain contempt on the part of RCA's executives for young record buyers? I guess. Am I all shook up about it? For once, no—because this time, RCA wasn't just throwing a bone to their most faithful but gullible customers: They probably didn't know it, but the material on A Date With Elvis was among the best that Presley ever recorded, or ever would.

Or at least that's true of the Sun Records material. Even the ironic appeal of teensploitation fluff like "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care" is lost on me, and while I like the Faron Young song "Is It So Strange," I prefer Elvis's one-verse version on the impromptu Million Dollar Quartet collection (available on RCA 2023-2-R and elsewhere). But the five songs on A Date With Elvis that were originally recorded at Sun Studios with Scotty Moore on electric guitar and Bill Black on upright bass—"Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Milkcow Blues Boogie," "Baby Let's Play House," "Good Rockin' Tonight," and "I Forgot to Remember to Forget"—are among the most original, powerful, and transcendent rock'n'roll music ever committed to tape. They're indispensable, along with the other Sun sides (footnote 2).

That's what prompted Speakers Corner, the German analog specialists, to reissue the album on high-quality vinyl, and to offer it as the latest in a veritable wave of modern mono LPs.

As other music lovers have found in recent years, not only should audiophiles not look down their noses at mono, they should shuck their prejudices and embrace it for the often superior format that it is. At its best, mono can be more colorful, more dramatic, and more direct and powerful than stereo. And while mono doesn't offer the same left-to-right spread of "images" as stereo (contrary to another audio writer's unintentionally funny observations a few years ago, when he suggested that a single microphone feed distinguishes sounds that strike one side of the diaphragm from sounds that strike the other), the format's spatial reproduction often has good depth and wholeness, and virtually always has a superior sense of scale—lacking, as it does, the fussiness and phasiness of its multichannel kin.

The remastering for the Elvis reissue LPs was done by the legendary Willem Makkee at Emil Berliner Studios in Hanover, Germany (footnote 3). For this project, Makkee, who is also cutting the lacquers for the Mercury Living Presence catalog (the LP rights to which were recently awarded to Speakers Corner), used the latest-spec Neumann VMS 80 lathe with an Ortofon cutting head. Although this isn't a dedicated mono platform, Makkee prefers his setup for what he considers to be its superior sound quality. And Makkee's examined the mono cuts he's done under his microscope, and can detect no vertical groove movement in any of them, going on to suggest that the only height variation that exists in his monos is less than the lacquer disc's normal vertical tolerances. (Bear in mind that the groove of a monophonic LP is modulated only in the horizontal plane; stereo uses horizontal and vertical modulations, coexisting in a 45º, V-shaped groove wherein the left channel is encoded on one wall of the groove, the right channel on the other.)

The new Elvis album is a wonderful thing, with the noiseless surfaces and high-quality graphics and packaging I've come to expect from Speakers Corner's LP reissues. The recorded sound itself may not please the average audiophile, since it's somewhat hobbled by RCA's queer decision to tamper with the original Sun recordings by adding an extra layer of reverb on top of the slap-back tape echo that was already there. An audible 60Hz hum also infected the masters during that stage—more audible on some tracks than others—and that, too, became a part of RCA's A Date With Elvis. That's what Willem Makkee and Speakers Corner have reproduced here—correctly, I think. As with their other LPs, to hear the Speakers Corner version of the record is to hear it as the person who bought the original might have. To me, that's the best one could ask for, historically, artistically, and for the sheer fun of it.

One more reason to order the Speakers Corner reissue right now: From March 1 forward, the days of the week are exactly the same in 2005 as they were in 1960, so the calendar on the back of the sleeve is actually useful, if for only a few more months. Just think: The first batch of Elvis calendars were probably marked up with such notes as "Give Fluffy a bath" and "Meet Reggie at the drugstore." The more recent ones will someday be found inscribed with notes such as "Colonoscopy at 10:30am"—and, well, "Meet Reggie at the drugstore." Plus ça change . . .

Upgrading from stereo to mono
I enjoyed A Date With Elvis on a Rega Planar 3 turntable dedicated to mono use, complete with Lyra Helikon Mono cartridge—a beautiful, groundbreaking product that carries the same $2195 price tag today as when it was introduced three years ago. Since then, other manufacturers have added mono pickups to their product lines, which I take as a sign that some folks, somewhere, are driving the market by actually buying these things.

Should you be one of them? Well, if you own lots of mono LPs, or if you enjoy the music that continues to be available on cheap, used mono vinyl—mostly classical and jazz, along with early blues, folk, and country music—you're a good candidate. Even so, you may be able to get away with what you already have—depending on precisely what it is you have, of course.

Here's a suggestion from Steve Hoffman, another well-known mastering engineer: If you want to play mono LPs on a stereo turntable in a stereo system, go to RadioShack and buy two Y-adapters—one with two female phono jacks on one end and a single male on the other, and one with two males on one end and a single female on the other. Plug the single male of one Y-adapter into the single female of the other, then plug your stereo tonearm cable into the open female pair—which will, of course, leave a pair of male plugs, ready to feed your stereo preamp. What you've just done is combine two discrete signals into one, then branch it back out to feed both channels of your system. That will give you a single "image," centered between your two loudspeakers.

Footnote 1: Actually, some informal Elvis recordings were made during this time by people who taped the jam sessions taking place at his apartment in Germany. At least some of these have been available on bootleg albums over the years.

Footnote 2: My fanciful boardroom conversation, while no doubt true in spirit, is impossible, since A Date With Elvis was actually the second time RCA had done such a thing: Earlier in 1959 they'd released For LP Fans Only, which was similar in concept and contained five other Sun tracks.

Footnote 3: Visit the feature-article section of Michael Fremer's for an interview with Makkee, as well as a glimpse inside EMB Studios.