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How many records did Elvis sell?

It seems to be a question that is impossible to answer. Nick Keene has taken the challenge to find the closest answer with the help of Erns Jorgensen. You'll read everything about his research in the dossier below.

How many records has Elvis actually sold? Did he really sell One Billion records as has been claimed.

Nick Keene has researched this subject in depth with help from Ernst Jorgensen at Sony BMG and has compiled the following report.

Some might say spin and hype did not start with politics, but in the entertainment world way back at the time of the Roman circuses. And nowhere will you find the air more thick with spin or hype than in the record industry. It seems that pretty well everybody in the business exaggerates the achievements of their clients perhaps because they assume that everyone else is doing the same. Bing Crosby's disc sales were once upon a time estimated by his record company on the basis of a somewhat quirky analysis of his sheet music sales and those of the Beatles were for years inflated on the rather spurious grounds that the sale of each one of their albums should be considered as equivalent to six singles. It is, however, going to come as rather a shock when fans begin to realise that the Presley figures have also not been immune to the odd spot of massaging over the years. Elvis did not sell 1 billion records by 1982 which claim first appeared via an article in the 'Washington Post' dated 12 July of that year and quoted RCA as its source, nor is there any validity in the current claim of 1.5 billion � whatever RCA/BMG may say in the liner notes on the back of one or two recent DVD releases. Rest assured my investigations reveal that Elvis is still by a distance the greatest record seller of all time, but even some 25 years later it is no easy task trying to establish whether or not his sales have actually exceeded one billion copies.

So what happened? Well it seems that around five years after Elvis died a former Radio Luxembourg DJ by the name of Don Wardell took over from Joan Deary as the product manager in charge of the Elvis catalogue at RCA. And it was during his watch that the 'Washington Post' claim first began to appear on the back of Elvis albums and in press releases. Somebody else in the old RCA backroom may have initially dreamt up the figures, but it was Don Wardell who publicised them and thus must bear the responsibility. When some time later after BMG took over RCA the new team tried and failed to elicit any kind of rational explanation from Don Wardell it swiftly became apparent to them that he hadn�t got one. Unfortunately it would appear that those in the company who knew this to be the case kept quiet, presumably because they felt stuck with a claim that over the years had come to be largely accepted by much of the media and regarded as beyond dispute by the fans. Inexplicably, about a year or so ago one or two folk in BMG probably in the publicity department proceeded to take this discredited claim a stage further � which strikes me as a patently senseless and daft approach to take since if there is one artist whose achievements require little hype it surely has to be Elvis Presley.

Elvis Presley 1969

So how many records has Elvis actually sold? The truth is that nobody really knows or will ever know, because whilst it is possible, as I will demonstrate, to establish his likely American sales within what I deem to be an acceptable margin of error, Presley's international sales-like those of many other if not all artists- are much more difficult to ascertain. Nevertheless it is certainly possible to put forward a broad based estimate once a figure for his domestic sales has been determined. The previous 'finger in the wind' guesses by persons unknown in his record company to the effect that Elvis' US sales accounted for about 60% of the total are simply not borne out by the market evidence nor for that matter by the wealth of gold or silver disc awards from other countries which Elvis himself had hung up on the walls of Graceland during his lifetime. In 1973 RCA actually put his US sales even higher - 200 out of the then claimed 300 million or so - when attempting to work out where they should pitch their initial offer in an effort to buy out future Elvis royalties accrued through his back catalogue, but it has now emerged that they did not know what royalties Elvis was receiving from overseas outlets in the first place so they simply came up with a back of the envelope estimate. It seems that each of the RCA affiliated outlets overseas mailed their royalty cheques directly to Elvis but did not send copy correspondence to HQ. Such limited information as has come my way from a few utterances which have been made over the years by one or other of Elvis Presley's many songwriters would indicate that they have received the majority of their royalties from overseas, but in saying that no assessment relying on a couple of quotes is remotely tenable. So any researcher must look elsewhere for clues and ferret out such evidence as exists circumstantial or otherwise.

There is for a start no question that the American share of the global market declined several decades ago, when other countries as far apart as Brazil and Japan embraced Western music and culture and this is clearly demonstrated by the total global musical sales for the year 2005, which with figures cast in billions of dollars reads as follows:

1 USA 7.0

2 Japan 3.7

3 UK 2.2

4 Germany 1.4

5 France 1.2

The rest 5.3

Total USA share of market 33.7%

Rest of the World 66.3%.

Elvis Presley 1970s

It doesn't come much more conclusive than that. So the question then turns on whether Elvis' sales conformed to this pattern.

In fact whilst a fifties classic such as 'Hound Dog' may well have initially sold twice as many copies in the States, as it did elsewhere-which as only the Americans had developed a consumer based society by that stage should hardly come as a surprise - it is plain from what we do know that subsequently up to70% of the sales of later singles were sold overseas. In Europe alone virtually all the big Presley hits from 'It's Now or Never' onwards more than matched US sales. Indeed the 1974/5 single 'My Boy' actually sold more copies in the UK than it did in the States.

More recent and better documented data adds even more grist to the mill and demonstrates that the picture with Presley records was and is indeed very much in keeping with market trends. Sales of the 2002 album '30x Number One Hits' have now topped the 15 million mark - with a good 11 million of those sold outside the States and the 2003 release 2nd to None has sold three copies overseas for each one sold in the USA - where it has long since gone platinum. In addition the majority of current single sales by any artist in the US, whilst still of symbolic importance, are negligible outside of those purchased for jukeboxes, but Elvis has continued to chalk up new sales elsewhere-over 1.4 million in the UK alone between June 2002 and June 2005.

Twenty five years ago RCA were saying much the same thing. The last album released during his lifetime 'Moody Blue' was by 1982 thought to be one of the King�s top sellers with global sales in excess of 12 million copies. However once US exports to Canada are excluded it seems that less than 3 million of those were actually sold to the home market. And as a final example on its initial release back in 1970 the single 'The Wonder of You' sold 990,000 copies in the USA and some 2,200,000 overseas. The exception to this picture is Presley's gospel music which continues to find particular favour with the strong Christian movement in the States and has no parallel elsewhere.

Domestically the indications are that Elvis has sold just over 400 million records of which interestingly perhaps only 20% (82 million) can be attributed to singles:

Summary Of American Sales OF 1954-2007


Documented / Estimated Sales (Millions)

RIAA certified sales 169.0

Sales currently awaiting RIAA certification 8.0

Sales above/between certification levels * 57.5

Sales below minimum certification levels* 74.5

Estimated missing sales** 38.0

Excluded or disqualified RIAA sales *** 18.5

Others- estimated sales under licence **** 38.0

Total 403.5 million

* The RIAA only certify sales which reach defined levels and therefore sales below their radar screen and between one level and the next level don�t count in their statistics.

** Only a few scattered sales statistics exist for the period between March 1973 and the end of 1975, but estimates can be made on the basis of what information is available and bearing in mind the sales for the years either side of this gap. The reason for this gap is that immediately the 1973 royalty buyout came into force RCA stopped issuing Elvis with sales figures relating to any of his records which were released before 1/3/1973. Although that included the subsequent US number one hit Aloha from Hawaii most of that album's sales were later discovered after BMG took over RCA in 1988. Rather it was the failure to log the incremental sales of older records which mattered most. A considerable number of Sun and RCA Pickwick returns are also missing .Perhaps worst of all-because it is not possible to make any meaningful allowance - yet more sales were apparently never logged on the RCA computer when it was first installed in January 1976, some never made it in the chaos after his death and believe it or not some have since fallen off. Mind boggling.

***A number of double albums were counted as one album by the RIAA because of their playing time. But they were sold as two albums and priced accordingly so BMG are justifiably entitled to count them as such. Other- that is budget- albums were disqualified because they fell below designated pricing parameters. If such records are considered to be square pegs in round holes then it is not clear why the RIAA cannot come up with a separate category or two and perhaps in time they will.

**** This is the elephant in the corner. After the 1973 buyout and right up to the present day literally dozens and dozens of heavily promoted Elvis compilations were released through other outlets under special licence. No less than a staggering 30 or so independent labels operating in the mail order sphere have been involved at one time or another. Time-Life alone was responsible for some 20 releases. Documentation has started to emerge to enable certification to proceed in one or two cases, but all too many of these companies either no longer exist or never kept adequate records. However projections-which err if anything on the modest side- can be made partly thanks to the emerging evidence from the likes of Time-Life and the trade journal sales reports from over the years, but also because it seems unlikely that even those companies of which little is known would have signed up to RCA-BMG�s exacting terms unless they felt confident of attracting orders running into several hundred thousand copies per release. Or to put it another way they wouldn�t have kept coming back for more.

Most importantly of all are the large sales which have accrued over the years through the more than 240 additional RCA/ Sony- BMG albums released in the USA and ranging from regular releases to RCA Record Club projects which have yet to reach the minimum RIAA thresholds. No other artist can have been repackaged so often. In addition there are also a considerable number of extended play albums and singles which likewise did not achieve gold disc status. Elvis� royalty sheets indicate that many of his uncertified singles sold just under half a million copies including titles such as 'Do the Clam', 'Such an Easy Question' and 'Love Letters'. When the US singles market generally went into decline from the mid 1970�s onwards so too, quite naturally, did the sales of Elvis' 45 rpm releases but he remained a very consistent seller right up until his death. Had a Billboard sales chart existed back then this would have been even more obvious than it was.

The release of so many albums over the years has been both a curse and a blessing. It has, so far, prevented any Elvis album officially reaching RIAA diamond status-10 million copies; (actually two albums have done so unofficially - but thus far they have been denied an award for some of the reasons mentioned above) although this policy has undoubtedly boosted Elvis' overall sales because of the constant promotion of recycled material under new titles, often at very affordable prices. The film song content of some of the cheaper albums on display in the superstores has occasionally upset the more discerning Presley fan, who would rather that the world did not know that Elvis had ever recorded 'Old Macdonald', but the fact is that over the years these albums have ended up in many a shopping basket and like it or not are one of his key sales components.

There are a number of other points to be made at this juncture namely:

For reasons which appear to have gone to the grave with Sam Phillips, Sun Records apparently did not reveal anything like the full extent of Elvis� sales when they sold his contract in November 1955. The same happened to Jerry Lee Lewis.

Certification of record sales requires documentation not of any actual sales sheets, but of the shipping invoices sent to the distributor and the returns of unsold discs made to the supplier. Such a requirement can obviously be that much more onerous if any third parties with little or no interest in the subject are involved in the process.

The RIAA include all sales of a disc whether or not there has been a change in the catalogue number. Thus for example the platinum award for 'Frankie and Johnny' comprises sales both from the original 1966 release and the 1976 budget album.

Despite the clear inadequacy of their overseas book keeping arrangements RCA were somehow able to come up with global sales estimates during Elvis' career which the author feels are reasonably believable including the following: 1959-50 million; 1964/5-100 million later revised to 125 million; 1970- 250 million and in 1976-400 million. It was only when he died that things appeared to go awry.

It is not generally appreciated that during the 1950's Elvis probably sold more extended play albums than he did long playing albums. Given the technology of the day EP's were simply easier to handle and also less costly.

Sony BMG will NOT spend money on historical research into Elvis' past RCA sales and it is useless remonstrating with them. Even EPE appear to have lost interest in pursuing the subject since this article was at one point going to appear on the Graceland website but that�s another story�.

The sheer number of releases made around the globe makes it impossible to detail international sales in the same way. Many local releases achieved truly staggering sales figures. For example little Denmark purchased an incredible 150,000 copies of a 1968 release entitled 'A Portrait in Music', whilst in 1974 the double album '40 Greatest Hits' shattered almost every known speed sales record set in the UK. A German inspired release entitled 'Elvis Forever' and its successors swept Europe around 1975 and so on.

Much comment has been made about the impact of Elvis' death on his sales-some of it grossly exaggerated by the media-but little note has been taken of the unprecedented demand for Presley product released in the Far East especially Japan during the period 1970 to 1975, thanks largely to the extraordinary impact of his filmed or recorded concert performances. Before discovering that South East Asia has long been one of Elvis� main markets outside of the States, I would have said that sales of all English language records would be lower in non English speaking countries than in those where Anglo-Saxon is the mother tongue, but when I further discovered- just to take a couple of examples- that 'You don�t have to say you love me' was the top English language single of 1971 in Japan with a reported sale of nearly one million and that the Christmas 1975 single 'Bringing it back' -a comparatively minor hit in the States-reached number one in the Thailand charts I realised that the music of Elvis Presley had truly transcended language barriers in a way nobody else had ever done.

It would seem that the growth of sales in overseas markets generally began to take off around the time Elvis was demobbed from the army in 1960.The statistics show that in the UK market for example overall sales in 1959 climbed from 66 million units to over 100 million by 1964 with incidentally the sales of albums overtaking singles around 1968. As already mentioned there is no doubt that from the release of 'It's Now or Never' onwards Presley�s singles began to hit sales figures especially in Europe which were beyond those achieved in the States. All this appears to be additionally backed up by the following indicators namely:

# The considerable number of known singles which managed to sell over a million copies worldwide, all in the period between 1960 and 1977, despite selling LESS than half of that total in the USA.

# Yet more singles from the same period which achieved an RIAA award by selling just over half a million copes at home, but thanks to international sales EASILY passed the million mark all told. At the request of the Colonel himself RCA did at least keep a score of the individual global sales of singles for possible inclusion on a subsequent gold disc album. Specific evidence of this can be found, for example, in the RCA brochure which accompanied the tour of Australia by Elvis Presley's gold Cadillac in 1968. This listed no less than 45 million sellers and 19 half million sellers up to that time.

# Those singles which were NEVER released in the States, but were huge hits in a wide range of countries overseas, including amongst others 'A Mess of Blues' (1960), 'Wooden Heart' (1961), 'I Just Can�t Help Believing' (1971) and 'The Girl of My Best Friend' (1976).

# Contrary to folklore sales WERE documented and certified in several key overseas markets as far back as the 1950's. In the UK the now long moribund 'Disc and Music Echo' pop magazine had by 1970 awarded Elvis around two dozen silver discs for sales of singles in excess of 250,000 copies. On a per head of population basis sales in the UK compared very favourably with the USA.

# On the album front according to an RCA press release issued in May 1965 and published in Billboard magazine only some 14 million, out of a total of the first 100 million Elvis records sold globally were for long playing discs. Sales of the latter then doubled within the next 3 years coinciding exactly with market trends although in Elvis' case much of this should be credited not to the film soundtrack recordings, whose sales were solid rather than spectacular, but to the album releases of the fifties and early sixties since these clearly achieved the bulk of their sales only AFTER the end of 1964. All that can be easily deduced from a glance at Elvis' certified domestic sales for albums released in the years between 1956 and 1964 and by comparing that figure to the May 1965 statement. Indeed it was the sustained upsurge in sales of his old albums that enabled RCA to proudly claim in a 1966 New Year�s Day telegram to the Colonel that 1965 had been Elvis' best year to date beating out even 1956. The sales of his new records, whilst still pretty healthy, could not by themselves have possibly accounted for this quite astonishing feat.

# What seems to have caused this jump in album sales and why was it so noticeable overseas? Well remember this was around the time when the Beatles, the Stones and the rest of the 'beat' groups exploded onto the scene which event occurred in Europe before America and caused sales to leap to unheard of figures benefiting all artists. Happily - at least for record company profits- this musical revolution coincided with teenagers all over the world, including the post army �second� wave of fans picked up by Elvis, discovering that they were able to persuade or cajole their parents into shelling out a bit more pocket money than their elder brothers or sisters were used to receiving. In addition many of the latter, who would have been amongst the first wave of Elvis fans back in the mid 1950's, were ten years on, beginning to get into regular employment . Very probably many of these fans used their newly found purchasing powers to acquire ALL the classic Presley albums they had previously been unable to afford and in particular to replace worn out singles with the gold disc albums. In short the consumer society had by now reached out beyond the shores of America.

# Finally in 1987 the Elvis estate placed on display at Graceland an unusual, if slightly bewildering award they had received from RCA, citing no less than 48 titles that had qualified under internal company criteria for worldwide gold disc status, but which had in considerable part previously gone unrecognised. This award caused some head scratching at the time - but it has some relevance since it included a HOST of mid sixties soundtrack albums which even today have failed to achieve domestic certification. The point here is that this award implies that over half of these sales must have been accrued from foreign parts. Thus all the evidence appears to point towards an overall international sales figure that is at LEAST 60 % of total global sales - that is just over 600 million copies after duly adjusting the domestic total which thus represents 40%. On the basis of recent known sales it could be argued that overseas sales might be as high as 65% or more which indeed would still be broadly in line with the percentage attributed to the sales of the Beatles and other artists. But as Elvis' sales history goes back further than the latter and I don�t subscribe to the Don Wardell school of mathematics I will stick to the lower figure here.


So I feel that it now seems safe to say that known sales of Presley records have now passed that coveted billion - albeit up to 25 years later than his record company first claimed that he had! Indeed if you like the 'lost' sales which I previously mentioned-that might be anything up to another 100 million who knows - can stand as some sort of further buffer against any error in these calculations but there is little doubt in my mind that Elvis Presley has become the one and only person to sell a billion copies of his recorded works. All of which places him several hundred million ahead of anyone else. As a BMG executive once remarked it�s not close. And nobody else is at the races. Despite Michael Jackson's recent claims I frankly doubt that the gloved one is anywhere near the Beatles (600 million) far less Elvis.

To those fans who will protest that this feature is somehow letting the side down I say sorry, but it is not my fault that in the past your expectations-and mine- were raised so high. As for any doubters in the media whose support inclines to other artists well fine � let us see your statistics and estimates, but until they are produced then there is little more to say. Even in his afterlife Elvis continues to reign supreme. Amen to that.

But finally please remember that statistics alone do not prove that any particular recording artist or group can be said to be the best of all time. Certainly in terms of hard facts and figures it might be argued that Elvis was the greatest artist or act we have seen so far- but anything else is just an opinion not a fact. And as for the continuing Beatles v Elvis debate it is surely a flawed one. How can you sensibly compare a group of people to one especially when their music is as different as chalk and cheese? Whereas Elvis' claim to musical prowess was based on the magnificent instrument that was his voice not to mention his extraordinary interpretative powers, both of which continually served to inspire his session musicians to raise their game to new heights , that of the Beatles rests on their superb song writing skills and inventiveness. In more ways than one these two greats came from a different place. Let it finally rest there I say.

Source: Elvis Australia / Nick Keene

Posted:  4th. August 2007 

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