Just How Much of Musical History Has Been Lost to History?

Valuable original recordings and rare tapes have vanished over the years—a process that Jack White and the National Recording Preservation Foundation are looking to stop.
AP / Katy Winn

Bones Howe ran the tape machines on the first Hollywood sessions for 22-year-old Elvis Presley in 1957. “They drove out west in a stretch Cadillac, all the guys in the band and all their instruments,” recalls Howe, now 80. On breaks from the studio, “they’d drive up Sunset and slow down so Elvis could wave at the girls on the sidewalk to see if they’d walk out into the traffic.”

The sessions went swell, and “All Shook Up” shot to No. 1. One day a few years later, Howe walked in the back door of the studio and noticed a trash can full of tapes. “I recognized a bunch of red and white boxes,” he says, “the original Elvis session tapes I worked on.” He took the trashed outtakes home and stored them in his cool and dark underground garage until after Elvis’ death when RCA came knocking, with a checkbook.

Famous outtake bootlegs like the Beatles' “Back Track” and Dylan’s “Great White Wonder” are thought to have come from studio insiders like Howe. Stories of legendary session tapes tossed, lost, burned, band-sawed, sold for scrap, or left to rot are legion. Since the labels only needed the final mono or stereo mix to make their product—not the piles of tape reels from which it was distilled—why pay for air conditioned warehousing? 

In this era where cultural products seem to live forever digitally, the fear of music becoming lost to time may seem distinctly outdated. But efforts to preserve America's audio history have never been more active than they are right now. Jack White has become the public face of these efforts, recently donating $200,000 to the National Recording Preservation Foundation, affiliated with the Library of Congress. He sits on the board with producer T. Bone Burnett, Sub Pop label founder Jonathan Poneman, legendary engineer George Massenburg and other music luminaries. What, exactly, are they trying to save? Turns out, a lot: Their ambitions are nothing smaller than protecting the entirety of America's sonic history.

Concerns about preservation arise whenever the music industry transitions from one audio format to another. Most ears wouldn’t notice the difference between a CD made from original tape kept in pristine condition or a poor copy. But Pink Floyd did. “They caused a huge stink when they heard what the first CDs sounded like,” Massenburg says. “The early analog-to-digital converters were egregiously bad.” Fortunately, Pink Floyd kept their original tapes and they made their own digital transfers to CD.

Not so fortunate were the members of Aerosmith, whose original multitrack tapes from their debut album on Columbia were lost or trashed. They had to re-record their megahits “Dream On” and “Mama Kin.” “It’s like karaoke, except with the original band members," said producer Marti Frederiksen, who has re-recorded tracks for Aerosmith, Foreigner, and others.

Untold tons of original recordings have fallen into the dumpster of history since Thomas Edison perfected the phonograph 125 years ago. “There are stories of early phonograph companies taking apart the masters used to press wax discs so they could be sold as roofing shingles,” White says. “They didn't think a recording was a document of anything cultural. It was just a way to sell phonographs.” Now White owns a Nashville-based record company, Third Man Records, making new recordings using a direct-to-acetate disk technology from the 1930s.

White believes newer digital audio technologies are inferior to older ones when it comes to preservation for the ages. “A lot of the digital formats in the last 20 years have proven to be anything but fail-safe,” White says. “The tapes break or the information can't be retrieved.“

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William Hochberg is a music attorney and journalist based in Santa Monica, California.

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