Amazing Australian blazed trails with Elvis
by Julius Grafton.
Australian sound and electronics engineer Bruce Jackson was born at the right time to emerge as a leader in lighting and audio electronics during the late 1960s. He was the ‘J’ in Jands, which became the leading entertainment technology manufacturer and distributor in Australia and remains so today.
Only after his death in 2011 piloting his aircraft out of Death Valley was he widely acclaimed – but he had already won the mantle as ‘the greatest sound guy alive’, according to Marty Erlichman, Barbra Streisand’s manager.
“In 1993 I set out to put together my first concert in 27 years. I knew no one. It was a painstaking task to put together a team of professionals that would enhance and protect Barbra’s performance”, said Erlichman.
“Though arduous, things came together in an orderly manner except for the sound. After many interviews with scores of potential ‘sound experts’, one frustrated candidate finally asked; ‘You’ve met all of us, some twice, and you still haven’t hired anyone. What exactly are you looking for?’ I simply replied, ‘The Best!’
His answer was ‘Then you might have a problem because the best is Bruce Jackson… but he’s retired and doesn’t do concerts any more. He is now a successful inventor.’ I said, ‘Then I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.’”
What then happened had the live audio community in awe as auditoriums were carpeted, drapes were hung over hundreds of square metres of walls, and fastidious new tricks were rolled out by Bruce to make cavernous, cold arenas intimate and bring the depth and timbre of his diva’s wonderful voice to every set of ears in every paying seat.
Money was no object, but Bruce was also no fool and things were done effectively. Barbra was his final client, in a list that includes the greatest performers and bands on earth, including Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Blood Sweat and Tears, Art Garfunkel, The Rev Al Green, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Black Sabbath and ironically The Jackson Five, when Michael was just a kid.
Ms Streisand explained from her perspective why the relationship between a performer and their audio engineer matters so much.
“It’s sort of legendary that when I step onto a concert stage, I’m concerned with every detail. But it never crossed my mind to worry about everything I depended on Bruce to do. The sound, I knew, would be immaculate. He was someone you treasured as an artist and equally as a person. He excelled at both. I will miss him.”
A Legend Made Another
Bruce worked for Elvis Presley for six years until Elvis’ death on August 16 1977. In that time he revolutionised Elvis’s sound with technical advances, designing and building new equipment and systems that were adopted by every leading band and artist, in fact the entire touring sound industry.
It’s the Elvis era of Bruce’s life that is the setting in a lush and colourful new book called Bruce Jackson On The Road With Elvis, written by Bruce’s younger brother Gary.
“It’s written in my voice,” Gary said, “framed around the Elvis period as it sat across the most exciting era for live sound, spanning primitive technology with a series of firsts that Bruce innovated.”
Along the way, Bruce collected a treasure trove of Elvis anecdotes, photographs and memorabilia, telling a close-up story of a performer troubled by his demons, and how he came to trust a young guy from Australia.
The very readable book interweaves the story of Elvis with the story of Bruce. “Elvis expert Evan Mueller has verified the Elvis history,” Gary said, “I verified the rest with the help of Bruce’s close friends and colleagues.”
Growing up in Altona, one of the most amazing harbourside estates in Sydney, Bruce had an insatiable interest in electronics which lead to forming Jands with his mate Philip Storey – the ‘S’ in Jands. Across his formative years Bruce combined his skills with a larrikin love of music and women.
The wild revolution of sex, drugs and rock and roll that started in the late 1960s comes alive in the reading. As does the procession of world famous bands and performers, laid into the narrative.
Elvis and The Crazy
There are endless insights into the troubles of a legend, seen through the pragmatic and non-judgemental eyes of his young Australian employee. Much of these are in Bruce’s words as he was a prolific letter writer who also sent spoken audio cassettes and on-the-road postcards to his mum Mavis, and his girlfriend back home.
Bruce’s love of aviation was sparked by sitting with the pilots on tour. When Elvis bought the ‘Lisa Marie’, a four-engine converted passenger jet, he wasn’t happy with the sound system. Bruce was called up to Elvis’s suite at the Las Vegas Hilton. Elvis was sitting on his bed in his karate suit. He told Bruce to do whatever he had to do to fix it or he’d shoot it out. Bruce noted Elvis’ gold gun on the bedside table. Elvis’ people were nervous… it could happen; a potential disaster in a pressurized aircraft.
Bruce is pictured at the controls flying the ‘Lisa Marie’ down to Miami for a replacement system to be installed. As the loopy became the normal, Bruce continued to design and construct new audio equipment including what was then a world-leading mixing console. He was not only employed by Elvis but also by Clair Brothers where he was regarded as a genius.
After the death of Elvis he went on to work with Bruce Springsteen whose words appear as a foreword in the book.
Bruce’s postcards, letters and talking tapes provide an intimate insight into Bruce’s life on the road with the Elvis Presley Show.
Bruce Jackson On The Road With Elvis is a large format (240 X 315mm, 222 page) beautifully presented hardback book printed on premium, 140gsm semi-matt art archive paper and comes in a custom made slipcase. This original story, with not only an account of a remarkable Australian’s life but also a fresh, new insight into the life of Elvis Presley, will be welcomed by fans who may have thought everything on Elvis’s life and career had already been said. Bruce Jackson On The Road With Elvis features many original, never-before-published photographs from the Jackson family collection.
This article first appeared in the October 2018 edition of CX Magazine – in print and online. CX Magazine is Australia and New Zealand’s only publication dedicated to entertainment technology news and issues. Read all editions for free or search our archive www.cxnetwork.com.au
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