Props for the CBS Elvis mini series

Sometimes it's the little things that get you.  For some, especially for those familiar with any particular subject, when watching a film about that subject the sight of a misplaced prop, a wrong piece of equipment in a conflicting time frame or an error in continuity can provide enough of a distraction so as to rob from the story that is being told.  This is also quite often the case for musicians and films about legendary artists.  In the making of a film there are usually people or company's who's sole responsibility it is to watch for that.  For props the responsibility lies with the propmaster and in most cases an independent prop house is contracted to supply them.


History For Hire Prop House in N Hollywood, CA

In November of 2004 I was contacted by Jim Elyea from History for Hire (HFH) in N. Hollywood, CA.  Jim's company supplies props for the Motion Picture and Television industry, specializing in Music, Military and Movie equipment.  He told me his firm had been contacted about supplying props for the new CBS mini-series "Elvis" scheduled for broadcast in May of 2005.  He was literally using Scotty's website as a guidebook for acquiring, building and supplying era correct instruments and props.  Being the competitive perfectionist that he is he had a virtual plethora of questions regarding details of the instruments and dates they were used by Scotty, Elvis, Bill and DJ and since I'd been compiling and presenting a lot of this info here on the site I was honored to be consulted and more than happy to assist.


Melissa Etheridge on the June 1, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone
Cover Photo by Peggy Sirota courtesy Rolling Stone

One of the first things we talked about was Scotty's first rig.  They had in house a 53 Gibson ES 295 that they had previously used in a photo shoot with Melissa Etheridge for the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.  Like Scotty had done with his, for use in the series Jim located and replaced the tailpiece and bridge with a shorter style trapeze tailpiece and a Melita Synchro-Sonic bridge.  This along with a wide panel Fender Deluxe tweed amp would be used by the actor portraying Scotty in the film.  The Deluxe's covering that Jim had was really worn and ratty and he asked what Scotty's would've been like.  Scotty's would've been pristine since he had been and still is impeccable with his instruments.  Jim had theirs recovered.


Modified Gibson ES 295 used in the series
Photo courtesy Sage Kobayashi


Fender Tweed Deluxe amp used as Scotty's in the series
Photo courtesy Sage Kobayashi


The ES 295 and Deluxe amp for the mini series
Photo courtesy Jim Elyea

He was also in search of a Hagstrom Viking II like the one Elvis borrowed from Al Casey for use in segments of the 68 Comeback Special.  I had seen several for sale in the past and they turn up on eBay from time to time in various states of condition but rarely the exact model as Al's.  Jim told me the writer of the series eventually purchased a sunburst model and had it refinished in red for use in the show.  The plan will be to have the cast all autograph it and auction it off for charity after the show airs.  Jim even had an identical strap on hand as Elvis used that is almost the same as the one used by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock.  He's hoping to get that back before they auction the guitar.


Collection of photos at HFH of the Echosonic amp used to build one

The problem with supplying some of these instruments as you can probably guess is their availability.  Real guitars of this type from that era are expensive and often in the hands of collectors that naturally don't want them in the hands of actors.  As for some of the other Gibson's to be used in the film I was told that Gibson would be supplying them or arranging for their loan.  Jim said a 1954 style L5CES guitar like Scotty played that Gibson had made special for use in the new Johnny Cash bio-pic "Walk The Line" (The Dempsey's actually portray Scotty, Bill and DJ in "Walk the Line") was going to be loaned for the "Elvis" project.  They were not going to build however a 56 style Super 400 like Scotty played after the L5 so one will not likely appear in the film.  As of this writing I haven't heard back from Gibson so I'm not sure as to which other Gibson models will actually be used.



Echosonic replica with both early and later style cabinet fronts
Photos courtesy Jim Elyea

It was Jim's task though to either locate or build a replica of Scotty's Echosonic amp.  He opted for the latter and asked about specifications.  I had previously taken more than a few detailed photographs of Scotty's amp while at his home in the summer of 2003 but never actually took any measurements.  Scotty was in London taping a show at Apple studios with Eric Clapton, Ron Wood and several others at the time so I couldn't immediately get dimensions from him.  I contacted Floyd Baker in Corpus Christi, TX who has one and he gladly supplied the dimensions of his for us.  Steve Bonner, also of Texas, supplied us with some detailed scans from photos of the amp with its original pre-57 style cabinet.  Using these and the photos I sent him Jim was able to have a dead on replica (visually) of Scotty's amp built, with two interchangeable fronts to represent both cabinet styles.  It was actually a working amp with delay, though not a vintage tube and tape type but the actor could actually play through it.  The only oversight was the mis-location of the Echo toggle switch due to a miscommunication on my part about a modification made by Ray Butts in the early '90s.


Martin's Replica of Elvis' tooled leather cover as used on his Martin D28
Photo courtesy The Martin Guitar Co.


replicated stick on letters by HFH Graphics

Chris Thomas with Artist Relations and Publicity of The Martin Guitar Co. told me they loaned a new D-18 and a D-28, only with tortoise pickguards as used in the '50s, for use in the mini-series.  Martin also loaned their replica of the tooled leather cover Elvis used on his D-28 but Stitch, the propmaster on the show, had his regular leather guy make another tooled leather cover to use in the film as he was concerned about damaging Martin's.  Jim's graphics department at HFH replicated sheets of the metal stick on letters spelling "ELVIS" to be used on the D-18 the way Elvis had his.  I mentioned to them the distinction between the orientation of the letters used on his 000-18 as opposed to the D-18 but they said that they were only going to be portraying the two later Martin's and not his first one, the 000-18.

 
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Elvis with Martin D-28 (with and without cover),
with Shure 55 and RCA 77C microphones
Photos courtesy CBS and IGN


Guitar used to represent Elvis' first
Photo courtesy Sage Kobayashi

The subject also came up about Elvis' first guitar, the one he would've got from the Tupelo Hardware store for his 11th birthday and most likely recorded at Sun with in the beginning.  His timing with all this was pretty good because I had just recently completed a section on the "complete" performance guitars of Elvis and had included a page on what I had been able to find about it.  Since there are no known photos of Elvis with it and the exact model can't be officially ascertained (at least not by me) I suggested that they locate and use something simple and inexpensive of that era, much like you might expect to find in a hardware store of the '40s, like a Kay or Harmony.  He had something he felt fit the bill in-house.


Kay basses used to represent Bill Black's at different times
Photo courtesy Sage Kobayashi


Fender Tweed Bassman amp used to represent Bill Black's
Photo courtesy Sage Kobayashi

Jim had asked about the color of Bill Black's Kay bass hearing that it was painted gold.  I had heard that once before and had previously asked Scotty and he said it was only ever the standard brown.  Bill used to use adhesive type tape on the edges of the bass and later added the same stick on letters as Elvis.  The letters on the bass don't appear though until around the time that Elvis got the D-28.  Jim said that since several scenes could be shot out of sequence, in the interests of continuity, they would likely either be filmed always on or not at all (the lettering).  They went with a bass they had with painted on edges feeling that on TV tape would not photograph any different.  Scotty said Bill eventually had had the edges of his painted.  They also sent out a tweed Fender Bassman for Bill's character and a couple of early Fender tweed Pros for misc. people.  One was a tv front, and the other a wide panel.


Gretsch round badge kit with replicated calfskin used as DJ's
Photo courtesy Sage Kobayashi


Replicated calfskin drumhead used as DJ's
Photo courtesy Sage Kobayashi

Jim asked who the drummer was before DJ and said the script called for DJ to be in scenes recording at Sun.  There was no drummer with the band before DJ and he never recorded at Sun.  In fact there are only drums on several later sessions at Sun and the drummers were Jimmy Lott and Johnny Bernero.  I called Roland Janes at Phillips Recording Service to ask about the sets they used and he told me that each of them used their own personal set, not a house set and he couldn't recall the type.  Jim said it was cost prohibitive to locate a Gretsch round badge kit in Copper Mist like DJ's, a rare item, and they didn't want to recover the vintage Tangerine sparkle set they had so it had to suffice (close enough).  He said  it detailed out really well, same snare, hi-hit, stands, seat, etc.  However, they were able to replicate the calfskin head for the bass like the one on DJ's.  DJ is sometimes pictured playing at different gigs a White Marine Pearl (WMP) set but DJ said he never owned a set in WMP.  They were quite likely either rented or someone else's on tour.


RCA Broadcast console and talk-back mic used in Sun Studio scenes
Photo courtesy Sage Kobayashi


RCA Broadcast console and Ampex recorders used in Sun Studio scenes
Photo courtesy Sage Kobayashi

In addition to the instruments, Doree Cooper, the Set Decorator, ordered much of the vintage recording equipment from HFH that will be depicted on the sets for Sun and the RCA studios as well as motion picture and Television cameras and equipment for scenes involving re-creations of Elvis' television appearances and movie filming.  Jim has to have one of the most impressive and largest collections of vintage microphones, audio and movie equipment around.  You've no doubt seen a lot of them used in films like "Forest Gump" and "That Thing You Do" as well as last year's films "The Aviator" and "Ray" all for which he also provided props.  For Sun, they also came up with the same talkback mic and a 90% dead-on version of the rack with the Ampex 350 recorder in it, as well as the Ampex 350 in the standard slanted roll-around rack that Sam Phillips had.  He also had an RCA broadcast console and modified it to look like the 76D Sam used. 


Vintage RCA Television studio cameras

When I created the section on studios over a year ago I covered a lot of the microphones that were used at the time and after viewing, Jim pointed out that one of the models I had listed was actually a RCA 44A instead of a 44BX.  That was the one that was used in the studio in New York for the promotional photos of Elvis after signing with RCA.  Jim also identified and supplied the mic's in use for the re-creation of the 68 special but there was one though that he didn't have and we could not identify.  During most of the performance segments Elvis appears to be using an Electro-Voice RE 15 microphone but the one used during the stand up live performance and several other segments was one that Jim didn't have.  I asked Bavo Dekker who had previously identified several mic's for me and he identified it as likely to be an Altec M28.  I'm not sure if one like this will be depicted in the series.


Sage Kobayashi at HFH working on the guitar to be used as Elvis' first


Late 1920's Gibson L4 used as Charlie Hodge's for the 68 special
Photo courtesy Sage Kobayashi

Sage Kobayashi is in charge of the musical instrument section at HFH, and was quite instrumental in putting this all together for the series. He put in a lot of time researching and did all the luthier work on the guitars they supplied, setting them up so that they would be good players as well as look good.  For use in the 68 special segments where Elvis, Scotty, DJ, Charlie Hodge and Alan Fortas sat around a stage jamming before a live audience they also sent out a late 20's black Gibson L-4 like Charlie's.  Sage also detailed out the cases for DJ and the others to tap on for that segment.


Altec microphone as used by Elvis in 1968
courtesy Bavo Decker

Filming for the series began the 2nd week of January on location in New Orleans.  The third week of January while I was in Anaheim, CA for the winter NAMM show Jim invited me out to tour the prop house in N. Hollywood.  Though most of the props for the series where already sent out and on location, it was a real pleasure to finally meet him and the rest of the amazingly creative people that work there.  I got to see how they did these things first hand and took plenty of pictures.  It was a pleasant surprise to see a loose-leaf binder full of printed pages of Scotty's website (their guidebook) on one of the work tables.  As an added bonus Jim put me to work correcting the final timeline for which instruments to be used and by whom in the series.  At this point we don't know how true to life they'll tell the story but we can only hope that the writers put as much effort into getting the story right as Jim and History for Hire did at getting the props right.


Yours Truly correcting the timeline at HFH

James V. Roy
March 29, 2005
 

The mini-series "Elvis" is currently scheduled to air in two parts on May 8th and May 11th, 2005 on CBS Television.  Check local listings for times.


April 5, 2005
EPE, Inc. is running a series of articles about Behind the scenes of the series, click here to check them out.  Also, CBS is now showing a preview on their website at www.cbs.com

Some of the props from this mini-series will be on display in the HFH booth at the VoxFest on May 21 in North Hollywood.  See http://www.voxfest.com for details.

 

All photos on this site (that we didn't borrow) unless otherwise indicated are the property of either Scotty Moore or James V. Roy and unauthorized use or reproduction is prohibited.

 
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