Master Tapes By Nirvana, Elton John, Aretha Franklin Were Lost In '08 Fire

By Andrew Magnotta @AndrewMagnotta

June 11, 2019

Smoke rises over burning structures at U

A fire at Universal Studios Hollywood 11 years ago this month had far more severe consequences for music history than previously imagined.

While the fire was initially reported to only have destroyed Universal's "King Kong" attraction and a video vault containing only copies older works, that was not the full extend of damage.

In a new investigation, New York Times Magazine has revealed that June 1, 2008, fire also claimed thousands of precious audio recordings in what's being called "the biggest disaster in the history of the music business."

The master recording is the source from which all copies are made; masters are by definition the most detailed, highest quality recordings of a performance in existence.

The Universal losses are staggering and a who's who of international music icons.

Almost all of Buddy Holly's masters were lost in the blaze, as well as most of jazz icon John Coltrane's masters from his Impulse Records catalog, NY Times Magazine reports.

Also lost were all the master tapes from Decca Records — including albums by Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Chuck Berry and many other legends, including some of Aretha Franklin's first recordings.

But the vault also contained multitrack recordings on which individual instruments are isolated from one another. There were also sessions in the vault that have never been released. Now they never will be.

Bill Haley & His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock," which was crucial to the development of rock 'n' roll; Etta James's "At Last"; and the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" are also gone.

The losses span decades of crucial music since 1940, including albums by Ray Charles, B.B. King, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Al Green, Elton John, Eric Clapton, the Eagles, Aerosmith, Patti LaBelle, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Police, R.E.M., Guns N' Roses, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Beck, Tupac, Eminem and The Roots.

A confidential internal report by Universal the year following the fire estimated 500,000 song titles were lost.

The fire reportedly started after maintenance workers using blowtorches accidentally set fire to shingles on the roofs of some buildings on the Universal lot. The fire started after the workers left the job early in the morning and eventually spread to the video and audio vaults.

New York Times Magazine said Universal downplayed the losses in the wake of the fire, guiding media coverage to the less consequential video vaults for fear of public humiliation and backlash (and potential legal action) from artists whose catalogs were destroyed.

One internal document from 2009 described the destruction as historical in scope, saying the fire claimed "undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage."

Photo: Getty Images

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