Priceless Master Recordings Lost in 2008 Fire: Report

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Aftermath of the 2008 Universal fire

According to an article published today (June 11) in the New York Times, a 2008 fire at Universal Studios Hollywood destroyed thousands of master recordings by some of the greatest artists in history. The fire was reported at the time to have destroyed the theme park’s King Kong attraction and a vault containing only copies of old videos.

The loss of the audio recordings was largely unknown at the time, says the report, written by Jody Rosen.

Recordings by Eric Clapton were among the thousands destroyed in the fire

The recordings lost in the fire included original recordings made for such labels as Chess, Decca, MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope. Lost were historical recordings by such artists as  Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as rock, blues and R&B artists such as Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf and Etta James. Masters of Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” and the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” were lost, according to the article.

The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” master was destroyed in the fire.

Masters for both singles and albums were destroyed. The Times’ lengthy list of masters affected includes dozens of recordings by major artists, ranging from Ray Charles and B.B. King to Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Cat Stevens, Steely Dan, Elton John, the Police, Nirvana and the Eagles.

Virtually all of the masters by Billie Holiday and Buddy Holly were lost, says the report.

Related: A re-introduction to Buddy Holly

According to the report, the fire took place on June 1, 2008, first engulfing a film set featured in Back to the Future and the King Kong Encounter. It then spread to a building known as Universal’s video vault, which also contained the audio masters owned by Universal Music Group (UMG). The intense fore caused devastating damage, the extent of which was largely unreported at the time. Although one news source did report the loss of thousands of master recordings, the Universal conglomerate did quick damage control to downplay the fire’s impact on its music holdings.

Said the Times, there were many masters “for largely forgotten artists that were stored in the vault: tens of thousands of gospel, blues, jazz, country, soul, disco, pop, easy listening, classical, comedy and spoken-word records that may now exist only as written entries in discographies.”

In addition to the familiar recordings lost in the fire, also gone were many previously unreleased recordings. A confidential memo unearthed by the Times put the number at 118,230 lost recordings in all, although the actual number might have been closer to 175,000. The likely number of song titles affected, in all, is said to have been more than half a million.

Postscript: Universal Music has issued a statement disputing the severity of the loss. In part it says that the Times report contains “numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets.” Read the corporation’s statement here.

In addition, the Kingsmen have stated that the master recording of “Louie Louie” was not lost. “Unless someone removed the masters from our vault in Washington, they are still there,” said Norm Sundholm of Kingsmen International Licensing, Inc.

Listen The master of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” was also destroyed

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