The tapes are from Memphis, and his family knew the King
Monday, August 8, 2005
By LINDA STEWART BALL / The Dallas Morning News
Steve Lawrence pulled the fragile reel-to-reel tapes out of a duffel bag and reverently laid them on the table.
The Plano man has tied his family's financial future to a dusty box of old recordings. Dubbed 'The Lost Memphis Tapes', they were found in a shed behind his late uncle's house on the Tennessee/Mississippi border.
"This whole thing is about dreams and destiny," Mr. Lawrence says. "It's destiny, how this landed in my lap ... I hope I handle it right."
Mr. Lawrence's uncle, Ronald "Slim" Wallace, owned Fernwood Records, a Memphis recording studio in the 1950s that had one big hit, "Tragedy," by Thomas Wayne.
Given the time, the place and a few eyewitness accounts, Mr. Lawrence, 52, believes the voice on at least six songs on those tapes is that of a shy but talented future king of rock 'n' roll.
But the experts beg to differ. It's not a young Elvis Presley they say. It's not Elvis singing at all.
"He believes in it because he wants to sell it," said Kevin Kern, media coordinator for Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. in Memphis. "Everything Elvis is hot."
Especially as Elvis Week looms; Aug. 16 marks the 28th anniversary of his passing in 1977 at 42.
"People who want to get publicity just latch on to Elvis because the ride will take you everywhere," said Mr. Kern. "I don't want to say that's what this guy is doing. ... You have to judge whether this guy is legitimate."
A lot of money is at stake.
"There are deep-pocketed Elvis collectors that would just go berserk with the right kind of authenticity," said John Petty, director of media relations for Heritage Galleries and Auctioneers of Dallas.
And there's the rub.
Ernst Jorgensen, the premier archivist of Elvis' recorded works, said the singer on the excerpts he received wasn't Elvis. He hears claims of lost Elvis tapes or just-discovered early recordings 20 to 30 times a year.
"I follow up on everything I can," Mr. Jorgensen wrote in an e-mail from Denmark. "It's quite seldom that we find something new."
A voice analysis comparing known early Elvis recordings to Mr. Lawrence's tape failed to match the vocal characteristics.
But Mr. Lawrence won't be deterred. He's neither a con artist nor a fool, those who know him say. Mr. Lawrence is a hard-working maintenance supervisor at Rodman Excavation in Frisco who writes and sings country and gospel songs in his spare time, a former police officer who is not afraid to chase life's possibilities.
"He's a man of integrity," said longtime friend Joe Ninowski Jr., 43, of Flower Mound. "He has great character, a great spirit about him. A-never-say-die attitude."
Mr. Lawrence's Uncle Slim, a truck driver and musician, built a recording studio in a garage behind his Memphis house around 1953-54.
But in 1966, after Mr. Wallace's younger daughter was killed, he lost interest in the music business and Fernwood Records faded.
In 2001, Mr. Wallace suffered a fatal heart attack. At a family reunion, Mr. Lawrence wondered what became of his uncle's record business. All that was left was the name, some papers, and a couple of boxes of tapes.
"Steve kept on me, 'What's on those tapes?' " his cousin Ronnie Lee Wallace Sr., 55, of Southaven, Miss., recalled. "He cut me a deal before I knew what was on them. ... He paid us $90,000."
In a Tyler studio they sifted through hours of unlabeled tapes, finding a smorgasbord of rockabilly, country and the blues, music that hadn't been heard in decades. The brittle tape often broke between songs.
"Finally something comes on," said James Patterson, 27, a Rosewood Studio engineer. "To me, you know, I thought it was Elvis instantly. The hair stood up on my arms and stuff. I turned around and said, 'Yes, that's Elvis right there.' "
Mr. Lawrence's cousin Glenda "Sue" Wallace, 66, of Duluth, Ga., doesn't have a doubt.
"I was there and saw it happen," she said.
She said she and Elvis were contemporaries who met at South Side hangouts. The way she remembers it, they talked music and Elvis asked whether her dad could help him out. She claims that after realizing Elvis wasn't straight country, her dad suggested the youth see his friend Sam Phillips at Sun Records.
"The rest is history," Ms. Wallace said, adding that Elvis gave her dad the songs in appreciation for helping him get started.
Singing the blues
He may have been in the Fernwood recording studio, but is that him singing?
"I guarantee you that's not Elvis's voice, even at an early stage; the quality of the voice is not there," said author and retired local schoolteacher Stanley Oberst.
But Mr. Oberst, who wrote the book Elvis in Texas: The Undiscovered King 1954 to 1958, thought some of the more valuable tracks on the tapes were of black blues singers. Collectors in England and Germany would latch on to that in a minute, he said. So Mr. Lawrence may have some Memphis gold after all, black gold, he says.
That makes him even more passionate about his family's legacy. Asked to speak at a recent Frisco Chamber of Commerce luncheon, he won a few converts on the Elvis question.
"I'd like to play one of the songs, a slow version of 'Don't Be Cruel,' and see who you think it sounds like," Mr. Lawrence told the crowd. "That's Ace Cannon on the horn. I've spoken to him. He remembers playing on this tune."
Leaning across a plate of salad and pasta, one chamber member whispered: "If he's got someone who was there, what's the dispute?" In this case, Elvis aficionados question the timing, saying it's unlikely Elvis would have even had access to that song until he recorded it for RCA around 1956.
Cruel details aside, folks remain intrigued by Mr. Lawrence's journey. In researching his musical roots, Mr. Lawrence is meeting colorful living legends and lesser-known characters from Memphis' recording past. He's enjoying the ride.
Naturally, because "we owe a pickup truck full of money," he said he hopes it somehow pays off. Until then, he's holding on to his day job and sharing "The Lost Memphis Tapes" story with whomever will listen.
"There's just so much to tell," he said. "It's unbelievable."
Is it the King?
Listen to clips of Steve Lawrence's unreleased recordings.
"Elvis Presley is the supreme socio-cultural icon in the history of pop culture"
(Dr. Gary Enders)
" Elvis is the 'glue' which holds our society together....which subconciously gives our world meaning"
"Eventually everybody has to die, except Elvis"
(humorist Dave Barry)
"He is the "Big Bang", and the universe he detonated is still expanding, the pieces are still flying"
(Greil Marcus, "Dead Elvis")
"I think Elvis Presley will never be solved"
"He was the most popular man that ever walked on this planet since Christ himself was here"
"When I first heard Elvis' voice I just knew I wasn't going to work for anybody...hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail"
"When we were kids growing up in Liverpool, all we ever wanted was to be Elvis Presley"
(Sir Paul McCartney)