The dangerous world of Elvis Bootlegging - Vic Colonna reveals all!
EIN Interview with Vic Colonna
Would you buy anything Elvis from this man?!
For the true fan, the Elvis world goes way beyond the endless RCA ‘Greatest Hit’ compiles.
The real Elvis musical excitement has always been found in the underworld of the Elvis bootlegs of officially unreleased material. Of course it is the popularity of Elvis Bootlegs that paved the way for Ernst Jorgensen & Roger Semon to create the ‘Follow That Dream’ Fan Club label.
While this was a HUGE positive for us fans, at the same time it helped kill-off the bootleg market.
From the mists of time one of the very first Elvis suppliers, Vic Colonna returns to tell all about the dangerous and devious world of Elvis Bootlegging.
In the mists of time these bootlegs were of course vinyl albums with stunning classics as the ‘Behind Closed Doors’, ‘The ’68 Comeback’, ‘From The Waist Up’ and so many more all featuring unreleased classic Elvis recordings that eventually RCA would issue.
Vic Colonna is one of the great names from this mysterious world that many fans will recall.
In 2008 EIN was delighted to discover that Vic Colonna is not only alive and well but is also writing a book about the exciting world of Elvis Bootlegs.
EIN was more than happy to ask the great man some questions.
EIN – It’s great to meet you and the concept of your book sounds fascinating, as the bootleg world is something that many fans are very interested in but know little of.
Before we get to the nitty-gritty perhaps I should ask you to explain to everyone, who is Vic Colonna and how did he end up in the world of bootlegging Elvis?
Vic - Vic is just a guy whose favorite male singer is Elvis and one day he hooked up with Paul Dowling to make a bootleg record. One led to another and the rest, as they say, is history. Just how all the pieces fell into place and all the little details will be unraveled in the book.
EIN – What was the core moment that changed you to becoming a hardcore Elvis fan?
Vic - I was 12 in 1956 when "Heartbreak Hotel" hit the airwaves and it was simply the best thing I had ever heard. I bought my first and, for a long time, only album—we just bought 45s then—and played it more times than I can count. This kid had something special, I thought. I had not seen him, knew nothing about his gyrations on stage (had only head a smattering of news and that would have been on stations that played Elvis so I doubt it was negative) and was completely unaware of anything else he had ever done. But that voice just plain mesmerized; he imparted a genuine feeling into the songs that was unlike anything I had heard before. I was completely hooked on group sounds (once called R&B and later to be know as doo–wop) and there were but a couple individual vocalists that I cared for. The crooners left me flat (Bennett, Sinatra, Como, et al) and few groups named their lead singer (an exception being Lee Andrew & the Hearts and can he ever sing!).
Chuck Berry was cool, Bo Diddley was different, but for me it was that group sound until Elvis came along. The beginning of this thing called rock ‘n’ roll brought forth a wealth of new material and one whole boatload of crap. The weekly top 40 consisted of about ten tunes that I liked and a ton of pap that passed for rock but was quite lame. Sure, Guy Mitchell’s "Singing the Blues" and Buddy Knox’s "Party Doll" were catchy little ditties, but the kind that one grew tired of quickly. Gogi Grant did one of my all–time favorites "The Wayward Wind" in 1956 but that could hardly be called a rock song.
Elvis was the real thing, and when he slowed it down a bit I still loved to hear him sing. Even "Old Shep", and they don’t get any slower and cornier than that one, had me enthralled as I conjured up mental pictures of this dog dragging a young boy to safety and saving him from drowning and I could see those trembling hands picking up the gun and those dog’s sad eyes… No one, just plain no one, had ever affected me like this before. I was an individualist and DID NOT like pop songs just because my peers did.
The stuff that I played and collected my friends never heard of and I wowed them at parties with my latest finds. Sure, they knew "Tonite Tonite" by the Mello Kings but I came up with "Sassafras" by the same group. Same for things like "Lily Maybelle" by The Valentines; we were rocking to "Little Darling" by the Gladiolas before the Diamonds covered it for white radio. I had 45s that just plain made you want to get up and dance and one that were for those mellow, somber moods and perfect for slow dancing. Then came Elvis.
My greatest find just happened to be one that the whole country, then the whole world found about at the same time. I know this: I rejected a number of hits and hit singers simply because they were so popular—and they faded away as quickly as they came so I was justified. If Elvis had not been something special I would have turned my back on him just because everyone else was so busy hyping him. But it was the voice, that incredible voice that could just plain stop you dead in your tracks be it "First In Line" or "Ready Teddy" and just tell me who in the heck there was that could sing two such dissimilar songs and have them both be equally appealing? Better yet, find me an album from those days by any male vocalist that had the variety of songs that appeared on Elvis’ first two albums. Small wonder that his Christmas album and first gospel album were stunning. This kid could just plain flat out sing better than anyone I had ever heard.
Ricky Nelson had a great career and many hits; Bobby Darin was terrific; but as I like to say—when you think baseball there is Babe Ruth and everyone else; when you think Rock ‘n’ Roll there is Elvis and everyone else (and to all you Beatles fans out there they are as great as Elvis in their own right and equally as important to rock but they happened to come AFTER Elvis and he was there firstest with the mostest).
EIN – Do you recall Elvis being on the TV in the fifties and the reaction it caused?
Vic - If I saw Elvis before the first Ed Sullivan show I don’t remember and since I cannot imagine forgetting that it is obvious I missed the Dorsey and Berle shows. I might have seen Steve Allen, when I saw it again years later some vestigial memory fluttered briefly but I just can’t be sure. I think that if I did see it I was so embarrassed by the tux routine and the silly dog on a table that I blocked it out. What was all that about? Talk about a farce!
The fact that Elvis could live that one down is fuel for an article or two; I bet it pleased many a parent while kids like me squirmed and wanted to turn the TV off because our idol, our figurehead, our justification for this "new" music that was completely our own and did not belong to our parents, was being ridiculed. Ycchhhh! But then, that’s television, and don’t get me started there. FYI, a long–term recently concluded POSITIVELY proved that children who watch TV more than two hours a day suffer a loss of five IQ points PER TELEVISION in the household in three years. So does every other family member. Dumb–de–dumb–dumb.
EIN – So at what point did you get into the world of Elvis bootlegs?
Vic - 1975 and, to coin a phrase, "I just stumbled upon it."
EIN - For those fans who don't know what was the first Elvis bootleg record?
Vic - Was it "Good Rocking Tonight"? Probably not, must have been something before that but I really don't know. However, those books about bootlegs may provide the answer possibly Clinton Heylin's 'Bootleg: the rise and fall of the secret recording industry' or the "Jailhouse Rock" bootleg book.
(EIN note: Both books say that 1970 was the year of Elvis' first bootleg LP release. 'The Hillbilly Cat' and 'Please Release Me' are named as possibly the very first, along with 'Good Rocking Tonight' being noted as the important turning point towards quality Elvis bootlegs.)
EIN - How many different Elvis bootleg organizations operated when you were involved? What were the main organizations and in which countries were they based?
Vic - Other organizations? Hardly. We had all the unreleased material. Nothing left for anyone else. However, a couple horrible sounding items did come out when we were making ours.
EIN – Didn’t you feel that the illegality was dangerous - and that you could have easily ended up in jail?
Vic - Not really. There were loads of boots and many people making them and it was such a small thing and no threat to record companies that I don’t think they cared. The book will have a couple anecdotes about RCA’s reaction in the beginning. I had never heard of anyone being arrested for making boots, I don’t think there were any.
EIN – I remember independent record stores even carried bootlegs in those days. They were often expensive and some (not yours!!) were poorly pressed, but boy were they exciting! At what point did the first clampdown happen and why?
Vic - Aha! Another chance to say something original. The first knowledge of having ruffled feathers came in 1979, a seminal point in our "career". As for why, I think by that point it was obvious we weren’t going away and we had gotten just a little too big not to notice. So, here’s a line you can use you never heard before, "Put the Blame on Me". Oh, you heard that one? Well that’s what you get for listening to all those durn Elvis records.
EIN – Did you often find yourself being chased or followed or threatened?
Vic - Only when I was on patrol in Vietnam and that was years before the Elvis boots. Seriously, never.
EIN – A question everyone asks us. Where did you manage to get all these tapes from? Did you get into the RCA vaults yourself?
Vic - Oh, the stories I could tell. And will. I swear they are all true. I couldn’t make stuff like this up if I was Stephen King - and no, I do not want to be a smarmy little creep that can write real well - and I think that when you read the book, which will detail just how the material for each of our records was unearthed, you’ll have to agree that the muses were busy as ever and their looms were smoking. It got to the point where I just plain wondered if I was somehow preordained to find all this stuff and if I was on some kind of mission to bring this material out of hiding for the enjoyment of Elvis fans. As stupid as that sounds, and I assure you I am not vain nor do I consider myself anyone special, it got to be a little bit eerie more than once.
The odds that all the pieces could have fallen into place they way they did, thus enabling us to acquire this material, were astronomical at times but it happened. The 1961 Hawaii concert has the strangest coincidence of all: one that had me wondering and still does. You see, a distant uncle was instrumental in that original project. So, when I was finishing high school Elvis was doing a benefit concert and fifteen years later a tape of that show wound up on my lap—a tape that, at that time, was in the possession of five or six other people in the whole blamed world. That, my friends, is called beating the odds.
(Left: One of Vic's original adverts for the Hawaii Benefit bootleg)
EIN - Legend has it that as part of a clean out in the 1960s, RCA dumped much of Elvis' movie recording sessions. A bright janitor found the discarded tapes and they eventually wound up being released as bootlegs. What can you tell us about this?
Vic – You'll love the story even though as Tom Petty said, "the waiting is the hardest part".
EIN: "Black Thursday" (14 august 1980) is a day few fans will know about. What can you tell us about it and were you in Memphis when the FBI swooped?
Vic – Have not a clue. I suggest you ask Paul Dowling about that. I assume you are referring to a "raid" on a show in Memphis but I know nothing of it and we were active then.
EIN - Why didn't the cops just turn up at your PO Box and arrest you?
Vic - Because I had 57 disguises, one for every Heinz variety, and only entered the post office through a secret tunnel in the dead of night. Actually, the answer to that one is: they knew where I lived.
EIN – Do you think this underground world actually changed the official recording industry?
Vic - You betchum, Red Ryder! Or, "Do I, think so, oh my, do I, Honey, ‘deed I do." Just how much could be a subtitle for the book.
EIN - On 30 November 1982 you were indicted along with Paul Dowling, Alan (Ace) Anderson and Richard Minor. What were the specific charges and what was the outcome?
Vic - I will go into detail regarding that in the final part of the book. Suffice to say, the guys in the white hats won and the good guys lost.
EIN - Is it true the authorities had earlier in 1982 confiscated 100,000 bootleg albums and several master tapes from the home of Richard Minor and his father?
Vic - News to me, I was busy with my record store at that time. Again that may be a question that Paul could answer.
EIN - Were the seized product all Elvis related? If not, what other artists were involved?
Vic - Could not have been. Richard had "redone" some of the awful Elvis boots from days gone by--the ones with plain white covers and a xeroxed sheet of paper under the shrink wrap and no label. He also had some repro sun 45s to my knowledge but Richard also had a few hundred thousand legitimate old 45s he bought from a fellow in Roanoke (I was with him when he made the purchase -- some 250,000 45s but not much good stuff). He would have had a small supply of ours, but Richard never bought from us in huge quantity.
EIN - The Elvis bootleg market waxes and wanes. In your opinion what is its future? Can the days of an Elvis bootleg selling 10,000 ever be matched or is it more likely the current state of play with 500 to 1,000 pressings will be the norm?
Vic - What's left to boot? Give me a week's worth of tapes of Elvis in a little club in Memphis in 1954-55 and I’ll crank up the presses all over again and make the billboard charts.
EIN – So can you believe that thirty years later the Elvis Bootleg industry still exists?
Vic - Absolutely. And it goes under the name FTD.
EIN – What are the albums you produced that you are most proud of? How many of each did you produce?
Vic - I am actually proud of them all, but a couple of the early ones could have been better. Hey, we were still learning. We produced EXACTLY enough so that every Elvis fan that wanted one could have one. You do the math.
(Right: The classic 'From The Waist Up' album)
EIN - Wasn't hauling around all that vinyl both heavy and difficult to distribute on the black market?
Vic - Heavy? What? Now I’m some wimp that can’t carry 60 or 90 pounds a few dozen feet? I’m so feeble I can’t lift a few boxes of LPs? I’m…wait, excuse me, I have to lie down and rest, all this typing has me plumb tuckered out. As for distribution, that was simply a matter of pluck, determination, and a challenge that we knew we could overcome.
EIN – Can you even recall how many Elvis bootlegs were you involved in and over how long a period?
Vic - Great! First I’m some feeble wuss that can’t even carry records around and now I’m senile. It sure is an honor to know I’m so well thought of after all these years. Of course I remember. I remember exactly what… wait, a minute, what was the question?
EIN – Do you know of any stunning or important unreleased Elvis material that is still to come out?
Vic - There were a few things on our boots that have yet to be put on FTD for some reason. Has the "laughing" version of "A Dog’s Life" appeared? How about the "sleep of wink" version of "If You Think I Don’t Need You"? Also, I had a couple tapes of Elvis in concert that may not have been released. One had a great version of "Kentucky Rain" that is distinguished from others in that the ending is completely different. For the very last word Elvis pauses a second and then "shouts" out RAIN and holds the note a la "Hurt".
Also, I know that there is color footage of all the Hayride shows, yes I said ALL of them. The sound, on a different reel, is missing at this time. So all we have is tons of silent footage and it is a shame to think that the effort has not been made to locate and match the reels. Could you stand 78 shows, 156 songs, in living color from those days? No? Sorry, didn’t mean to bore you. I guess it would get repetitious since Elvis sang "That’s All Right" about 50 times. I didn’t mean to go on about a little thing like that. Hey, what was I thinking? Elvis fans have enough already. Why would they want to hear him when he was unpolished and raw and all he did was make girls hysterical? I’m sorry I brought this up. We have all those ‘70s concerts with those great jumpsuits to watch, who cares about a young kid that hasn’t even made a name for himself and doesn’t even have a contract with a major label?
(EIN Note: The 'A Dog's Life' laughing outtakes officially first appeared on the 1980 Silver box-set and more recently on the FTD of 'Paradise Hawaiian Style')
EIN - Did you also sell unreleased Elvis video on Super 8 film! That seems quite incredible nowadays?
Vic - Regular 8, Super 8, and 16mm along with VHS and beta.
EIN – What about any exciting new video footage? Have you seen the Pied Piper film?
Vic - You mean that 1972 British film with Jacques Demy? I didn’t know Elvis was in that one. I’ll have to watch it again.
EIN – Do you think RCA dropped the ball during the last few years of Elvis’ life and should have been releasing more of the material that you were?
Vic - RCA turned the reins over to Joan Dreary (sic) and she did exactly what any middle–management executive at a large corporation always does: acted without inspiration or imagination and did exactly enough to get by. Fortunately for her, those above her were equally uninspired and unimaginative so they did not realize what a lousy job she was doing. Felton Jarvis I know little about but what the heck was he thinking by holding on to the Hayride tapes? However, I sure am glad he did and that is one of the stories in the book.
EIN – Elvis fans are extremely lucky that we now have the ‘Follow That Dream’ label. Have you been following all their releases since a lot is the material you originally put out?
Vic - To a degree. I had them all about four years ago but some friend liked them as much as I did and now they are his. If I only knew which friend I could simply beat him to death and get them back. Too expensive to replace them all so I have gone without for the most part and that sort of took the wind out of my sails for collecting them all. However, in this digital age, if some fan wants to put them into iTunes and then drag and drop the folders on the hard drive onto a blank DVD and then burn it (you can get about 45 albums on one DVD) I know where that DVD can get a good home.
Which, come to think of it, is the price I should have demanded for sitting down and typing until my fingers are numb. Criminy, Piers, you’d think after all these years I would have smartened up and learned to be a selfish, greedy pig instead of trying to be nice to people. When will I ever learn? (and other questions from "Blowing in the Wind")
EIN – Talking of Dylan, other companies actually release outtake material to the general public – ie. Bob Dylan’s "Bootleg" series. Do you think that RCA missed their chance to do this by pumping out too much Elvis product year after year and thus saturating the market?
Vic - Saturate the Elvis market? Have you lost your cotton–picking mind? Excuse me, I forgot myself for a minute. Have you lost your kangaroo–boxing mind? If RCA were to sequentially release each and every live show Elvis did in Vegas and on the road from 1969-1977 there would be enough buyers to justify the project. I’ll bet they would even be able to sell a few thousand copies of the limited, numbered, 600 CD boxed set with the accompanying nine–volume books and photo albums (plus souvenirs from Vegas) chronicling the entire period. Hey, you got something better to spend $9,999 on? (Manufacturer’s suggested retail price)
EIN – A lot of well-known names from this bootlegging world end up working for the record companies or selling Elvis product. What have you been doing these past years?
Vic - After a few years running a retail record store I learned computers and went into the consulting business. Then I retired, primarily for health reasons (other people drove me nuts), and lived a solitary, introspective life for a few years catching up on all the books and films I had been meaning to read and watch all my life. In 2002 I decided to go back to school and that is where I have been the last few years. Classes are fun, and with no pressure to get a degree, job, start a career like most of the students I just plain love it. I plan to keep taking classes until they stop making pretty girls.
EIN – Now it is no secret that super-fan Paul Dowling was a colleague of yours at the time and I believe he was finally busted and even went to jail? What happened there and what happened to you?
(Note: Go here to Paul Dowling's Worldwide Elvis website)
Vic - Yeah, it was all Paul’s fault. I should have know better than to get mixed up with a lowlife, womanizing, rowdy, boisterous, blowhard like him in the first place. Actually, I am totally innocent of all charges, have never done a thing wrong in my entire life, and this whole business of me being involved with Elvis bootlegs is just a lie told by that Dowling guy that I happened to trade a record with once. Just once. I didn’t even know he was using my name. I never knew about those records. How could anyone believe I could ever do something like that? I never heard of this Edelweis fellow. I’m a Slim Whitman fan. And if you read this far then you’ll find all those answers in the book.
EIN – I may be wrong in this but wasn’t ‘Elvis Specialities’ a name something to do with you or Paul Dowling? Now I see that Ace Anderson uses the same website name and is openly selling your Bootleg albums! Can you explain this as even EIN down here in Australia with no bootlegs to sell gets threatening letters from EPE’s lawyers! !
Vic - Just remember, those threatening letters that you can laugh off and ignore represent billable hours and EPE is paying to have those letters written. Remember the adage: one lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred guys with machine guns. Elvis Specialities was a name we used, as we did with a few others, for certain mailings to distinguish replies from our regular list.
EIN – Were there other cases of people backstabbing their colleagues? Was it a dangerous position to get yourself in?
Vic - I think back–stabbing started with some guy named Cain and has not lost a bit of popularity in the intervening years. Such is the way of the world. As far as dangerous: dangerous is when you’re in a rice paddy up to your neck in mud and the leeches are nibbling at you all over and those little splashes in the water around you are being made by bullets and you’re trying to shoot back and duck at the same time only when you duck your head goes under water. After that, my friend, not much you will experience in life goes under the heading "dangerous position".
EIN - Can the release of bootlegs be justified?
Vic - Absolutely. Especially in this day and age when fans have to wait years for an artist to release a new album. Why? Paul McCartney and curt flood changed the world. Can you figure that one out or must I elaborate. Remember, before the Beatles broke up and McCartney was up for grabs the industry norm was to pay on a per album basis. You had groups like Creedence, Airplane, Joe Cocker, The Who, Zep, etc. Putting out at least an album a year and often two. Then McCartney got 25 million up front from Colombia for his next eight albums and the world has never been the same. Would you work as hard if you got paid for the next 10 years in advance?
Boots keep the artist’s memory alive and keep the fans thirsting for more. Sure, superstar acts like Springsteen or Dylan can go a few years and come back strong but there are many really good groups that are on that one album every two or three years schedule and were it not for some live show boots (digital quality now) they would be relegated to the dustpile and have to come up with something sensational to reclaim their former status.
Then again, the hype and publicity machines have the Internet and 24-hr news coverage and all those idiotic entertainment tonight-type shows to keep the names in the news. Even though those shows have nothing to say they keep blurting out names again and again and most people (I did not say that most people are idiots so you cannot print that) take whatever they hear as gospel no matter how ludicrous.
EIN – So what excitements are going to be in your book?
Vic - If you like Elvis and are interested in what the complete story was about those 23 bootlegs that came out in five years (none of the material had ever been released by RCA)—how the material came to light, the process involved, the fan reaction, and the stuff that a Hollywood fiction writer could never think up, you’ll like it. Exciting may not be the right word but I sure will do my durndest to make it interesting because I sure think it was.
(Right: Three classic Bootlegs, the contents of which would only be released years later by RCA)
EIN – When can we expect it to be released?
Vic - I’m shooting for a June deadline and from there it is up to an agent and publishing house. I’ll turn over the manuscript for editing in June and then it is out of my hands as to release date. I am thinking about a "special edition" version of the book that would be autographed by Paul and I and would offer photos that the publisher might not choose to include as a supplement. Before doing that I would need to assess potential demand and figure out the cost.
This is not something I would do for extra money, I’d just like to see the most devoted fans get something maybe a little extra special. Ideally, I would like to sell the autographed copies with the supplement for the same price as the book but it all depends on demand and how much a photo supplement costs. I’ll foot the bill for the supplement if it costs less than the difference between my wholesale price for the book and the retail price. And I expect it will.
EIN – The book you mentioned earlier by Clinton Heylin about bootlegs called "The Rise & Fall of the Secret Recording History". Have you read it and how will yours differ?
Vic - Read that and others. Mine is the story of two people making records about one artist; his is about the bootleg industry.
EIN – Of all the people in the Elvis World who was the most interesting person you have met?
Vic - The most interesting person I ever met in the Elvis world was, and still is, Paul Dowling. The best friend I ever made, thanks to Elvis, is Glen Johnson. The most egotistical jerk with absolutely nothing to offer prize gets awarded to Charlie Hodge who happens to be a nice guy but needed to talk about something else. The prettiest girl I ever saw was at an Elvis convention and when I referred to her as the "one that put all those boats in the water" she beamed without having to think about it which told me she was not just another pretty face. The nicest people I ever met were the Elvis fans who just seem to be a happy bunch.
EIN - Did you ever meet Elvis?!
Vic - No, but he never met me either. Except for the fact that he was handsome, could sing, was world famous, and filthy rich, I guess that makes us even.
EIN – How many times did you get to see Elvis live in concert?
Vic – Six times.
EIN – That sounds pretty exciting, perhaps you could tell us a little more in a follow up discussion?
Vic - What sounds exciting? Oh, the fact I saw Elvis six times? Sure was. But I would have traded them all and a hundred more for a seat in NBC’s studio four the evening of June 27, 1968.
EIN - Thanks so much, it is a truly fascinating world and I'm glad that you are not looking over your shoulder anymore. Thanks for the interview and thanks for all the great boots!!
Vic - You’re welcome for the interview, the boots were my pleasure, and stop walking behind me, I’m trying to look back there!
Interview by Piers Beagley & Nigel Patterson
-Copyright EIN, January 2008
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One of Vic Colonna's original adverts featuring seven classic bootleg vinyl albums, costing as little as $8.00 each!