The fire occurred 11 years ago, but Dwight Twilley and others in the music industry are still waiting for the smoke to clear.
A Tulsa-based music figure in the power pop genre, Twilley had his world rocked by a June 11 story in New York Times Magazine.
Headlined “The Day the Music Burned,” the story was a deep dig, long-form read about a June 1, 2008, fire on a Universal Studios Hollywood backlot.
According to the story, a vault facility on the premises was used by Universal Music Group, the world’s largest record company, as a site to store musical treasures — original masters and other recordings dating to the 1940s.
Jody Rosen, the author of the story, said legal documents and UMG reports obtained during research indicated that more than 100,000 masters and an estimated 500,000 song titles burned in the fire.
It’s a story that resonates locally because of the names on the list. Among them: Roy Clark. Leon Russell. Reba McEntire.
Twilley was asked if reading the story made him sick to his stomach.
“How could it not?” he said. “There are a lot of different emotions that you go through. You get angry.”
Twilley fears, but doesn’t know for sure, that he lost irreplaceable materials in the fire. Not knowing is among the things that has him agitated. The reason he’s speaking out about it is this: He wants answers.
Asked what questions he would like to get answered, Twilley laughed and said, “All of them. What the hell happened? Why was it covered up for all this time? What do they propose to do to compensate? And everybody’s talking in the dark anyway. So this is a story about questions.”
It’s certainly a global story considering the list of individuals affected. Hundreds of names were listed in a follow-up article and it reads like an a who’s who of music history. Count Basie. Chuck Berry. Ernest Tubb. Jerry Lee Lewis. Neil Diamond. Loretta Lynn. Recordings from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Leonard Nimoy and comedy figures (ranging from Groucho Marx to Chris Rock) also were on the New York Times list.
Clark, a country music figure who lived in Tulsa, died in 2018. He was represented by Tulsa’s Jim Halsey, who said Clark retrieved his masters before the fire.
When Russell’s name appeared on the New York Times’ list, a story link to it was shared on The Church Studio Facebook page and was accompanied by this one-word message: “NO!”
The Church Studio is part of Russell lore because it was ground zero during the era of Shelter Records, a label he co-founded. Current Church Studio owner Teresa Knox elaborated on the “NO!” Facebook post.
“The thought of Leon Russell’s brilliant masters being a part of this unimaginable example of corporate negligence is sickening,” she said in a message to the Tulsa World. “You cannot place a value on irreplaceable analog recordings. It’s hard to even fathom how a special musical moment in time, captured on a reel of tape, is dead.”
What Russell materials may have been lost? Historian Steve Todoroff said he can’t be certain. He said Capitol bought Russell’s Shelter Records masters from DCC Compact Classics in the 1990s. Capitol is now under the UMG umbrella. Todoroff said late Tulsa music figure Jimmy Markham’s raw 1960s masters produced by Billy Lee Riley resided at Capitol, too.
What still exists? What doesn’t? Wait and see. Or, sue and see.
Days after “The Day the Music Burned” was unveiled, a class-action lawsuit against UMG was filed by representatives of Soundgarden, Steve Earle, Hole and the estates of Tupac and Tom Petty, who was once in the Shelter Records stable. In addition to seeking financial compensation, the suit accuses UMG of negligence (was enough done to prevent the fire?) and concealing the extent of the losses from artists. The year after the fire, UMG, which had been a tenant of NBCUniversal at the fire site, filed suit against NBCUniversal in search of damages, according to the New York Times Magazine story, which said a settlement was reached.
Twilley said there have got to be a “gazillion” people who have questions related to what was lost in the fire.
In an interview with Billboard, UMG’s Patrick Kraus said the New York Times Magazine story “overstated” the losses, but added that any loss of an asset, master or otherwise, is “painful for us.” The story said UMG sent “team” members into 10 vaults around the world to verify the location and condition of more than 3.5 million assets, including original recordings to photographs.
UMG, if guilty of the difficult feat of hiding a music tragedy from the public for more than a decade, now wants to be more open. The Los Angeles Times obtained a memo from UMG CEO Lucian Grainge that said “we owe our artists transparency.” Variety obtained a memo from Kraus that detailed the measures UMG is enacting to get answers as quickly as possible. Artists and their representatives were urged to contact him. Twilley has taken that step.
The New York Times’ follow-up story about the fire led with a tale about Canadian rocker Bryan Adams seeking archival materials from UMG in 2013. He came up empty. Reading “The Day the Music Burned” provided him with new context.
Twilley has a similar story. About 18 months ago, he began the process of trying to retrieve material so he could remix his first solo album.
“I already had funding for it,” he said.
Twilley said it took a long time to get a reply. He presented options and said he didn’t even need the physical masters, but was unable to secure what he needed. In his opinion, he was fed a “line” about why his request couldn’t be granted.
To reiterate, Twilley isn’t sure if part of his past went up in flames. He has read multiple lists with names of artists who were fire “victims” and his name hasn’t been on any of them. The New York Times list was a partial list of artists believed to have lost master recordings.
However, Twilley assumes he lost materials because UMG acquired the EMI label in 2012. “That would be almost everything I have ever done,” Twilley said.
Twilley would like to be pleasantly surprised, but he has doubts about that happening. If losses were incurred, he feels he should be compensated.
“Naturally you think I want a bunch of money for this,” he said. “And if you got the money it wouldn’t replace ‘Looking for the Magic.’”
Twilley said some of his past works have more emotional value to him than dollar value. He said some of his closest friends were original members of the Dwight Twilley band. It’s heartbreaking that their collaborations could have melted.
Twilley said it’s hard to talk about the fire because he is talking without having any answers.
“But any way you look at it, it is very unsettling,” he said. “It’s such a huge amount of American art.”
In 1975, Twilley’s first chart single (it rose to No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100) was “I’m on Fire.” He’s burning to know the whole truth about the fire of 2008.
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