Elvis in the Beginning: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer

7 minute read

“Elvis who?”

More than six decades later, with amusement and wonder, photographer Alfred Wertheimer recalls uttering that very question in early 1956. A publicist from RCA Victor records had contacted him, asking if he was available to photograph a young singer named Elvis Presley.

“I’d never heard of the man,” Wertheimer told TIME. “He didn’t have a gold record yet.” (By the end of the year, Elvis was known around the world, and was a millionaire at a time when a million dollars meant something.)

The photographs Wertheimer took of the early Elvis remain some of the most remarkable and intimate photographs ever made of any major celebrity, in any era. On the publication of Taschen’s new book, Elvis and the Birth of Rock and Roll, TIME met with Wertheimer to reminisce about the days and nights he spent with the young rocker on the cusp of unfathomable fame, and the ways in which his own early career became inextricably linked with the King’s.

Born in Bavaria, Wertheimer emigrated with his family to the U.S. — fleeing Nazi ascendancy — in 1936, when he was just six years old. He grew up in Brooklyn, attended Cooper Union and honed his skills as a photographer. Upon graduation in 1953, he was drafted into the army; two years later, honorably discharged, he worked for a year for fashion photographer Tom Pulumbo, then headed out on his own as a freelancer. He worked out of a studio shared with a number of other photographers — including a friend, the future LIFE great Paul Schutzer, who suggested Wertheimer show his work to Anne Fulchino, the head of PR at RCA Victor.

Fuclhino was the publicist on that fateful phone call in early ’56; she had seen some of Wertheimer’s work and liked it enough to occasionally assign him a freelance job.

On March 10, 1956, Wertheimer was working in the darkroom when Fulchino rang. “Are you available next week?” Wertheimer recalls her asking. “I’d like you to photograph Elvis Presley. We signed him up last November and I haven’t got any pictures of him in my files.”

A week later, Wertheimer met Fulchino at CBS studios in New York, where Elvis was scheduled to appear on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show. Fulchino took the 26-year-old photographer backstage, where she introduced the two young men to one another and let Elvis know that Wertheimer would be taking some pictures of him. “Elvis essentially grunted,” Wertheimer, recalls, “and didn’t even look up. I thought to myself, that’s okay with me — I’m the fly on the wall. He doesn’t have to be sociable.”

Wertheimer took his first photographs of Elvis backstage and in rehearsal — then, with time to kill before the live television performance later that evening, he began making the pictures that, all these years later, still feel wholly immediate and new: pictures not of a star who’s “on,” but an artist in his quieter moments.

“He heads back to his hotel, and now I’m his shadow. We got along fine. He was a quiet, introspective guy, and I was a quiet introspective guy. Two quiet nerds getting along together. We walk up Broadway, just him and me. He decides he needs a shirt, so we go into a men’s shop. He sees all these 8×10 glossies of entertainers posted on the dressing room door, and I can just imagine him thinking, One day I’ll have made it, and I’ll get myself on the door. Little did he know!”

At the hotel, Elvis read fan mail (slide #4) and eventually fell asleep. (“Some of the fan letters were six or seven pages long,” Wertheimer remembers, “and he was going to read every page.”) Wertheimer fell asleep, too — until being awakened by the buzzing of an electric razor.

“Elvis is in the bathroom, shaving,” Wertheimer says. In a moment of inspired chutzpah, or perhaps blessed innocence, “I asked him, not knowing any better, if I could come in and continue our photo session.” Incredibly, Elvis said yes.

“He’s combing his hair, looking in this little ladies’ mirror (slide #3). He’s bare-chested. He had pimples on his back and a boil on his left shoulder, and you would think he would be very conscious of that. But he was totally unselfconscious.

“The wonderful thing about Elvis,” Wertheimer says, “was that he permitted closeness. Later on, I found out he also made the girls cry. Those were the two qualities that made him different from other performers I had met. Others would let you to come within six or eight feet, but that was it. They’d get nervous, or they’d start to ham it up. Not Elvis. He was always just himself.”

Wertheimer didn’t see Elvis again until June 1956, when he traveled to Richmond, Virginia, where Elvis was performing at the Mosque Theatre. While there Wertheimer captured two of the greatest off-stage photographs of a performer ever made: “The Kiss” (slide #15) and “Grilled Cheese 20 Cents” (slide #13), which has since become the single best-selling picture of his career.

In early July, both Elvis and Wertheimer were back in New York for the historic recording sessions for “Hound Dog,” “Don’t be Cruel” and “Anyway You Want Me.” After the assignment was officially over, Wertheimer decided to follow Elvis home to Memphis on his own dime. (“I felt that if I didn’t go down South to get something of his family,” he told TIME, “I wouldn’t really have a story.”) After that, he saw the singer, now a genuine superstar, just once more, in September 1958, when Elvis was leaving Brooklyn for Germany after his induction into the army.

Wertheimer continued to work as a photographer and did some freelance movie work, including a spot as one of the five main cameramen on the 1970 documentary Woodstock. For almost 20 years, however, there was virtually no interest in the astonishing photographs he’d made of Elvis between 1956 and ’58.

That changed on August 16, 1977 — the day Elvis died.

TIME chose to run one of Wertheimer’s images in its coverage of Elvis’ death. People magazine requested pictures. Contact Image Press offered to rep him. Wertheimer returned to his archive, exploring photos he himself hadn’t seen in years. In subsequent years, Elvis Presley Enterprises licensed his images on clocks, calendars and other merchandise. More recently the Smithsonian created a traveling exhibition, Elvis at 21, featuring 40 of Wertheimer’s prints; it debuted at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles in 2010, and will have visited a dozen other cities by the time it finally closes in Fort Worth, Texas, this September.

The pictures themselves, meanwhile, only grow more impressive as time passes. Wertheimer’s unfettered access to an artist destined for megastardom is, frankly, unimaginable today, while the timing of the assignment — in terms of his own career and the career of his subject — could not have been more fortuitous. In large part, however, Wertheimer made his own luck, especially when he elected to follow Elvis home to Memphis in order to broaden and deepen the already phenomenal portfolio he had started in New York and Richmond.

No photographer would ever get this close to Elvis again. But because Presley was, at the time, as innocent and carefree as Wertheimer, these photographs afford us a breathtaking, undimmed portrait of the man who would be king.

Alfred Wertheimer is a New York-based photographer, best known for his photographs of Elvis taken in 1956. His work has appeared in publications including LIFE, Paris Match and Rolling Stone. LightBox previously featured Wertheimer’s photographs of Nina Simone.

Each of the following captions include Wertheimer's first-person memories. March 17, 1956. The Warwick, New York. A cold winter's day in March. Here Elvis is walking into his hotel alone. He and I were back there, in between the rehearsal and the evening performance [on the Dorsey Brothers "Stage Show"]. The little black spots on the sidewalk? That’s chewing gum that’s been ground into the pavement.©Alfred Wertheimer
March 17, 1956. Backstage at the Dorsey Brothers 'Stage Show' rehearsal. One of my first pictures of Elvis. He kept looking at a good luck ring on his left hand that he ordered two weeks before on the same show from the ring salesman (sitting next to him). The salesman proceeded to try to persuade him that he needed two more rings. Elvis said no.©Alfred Wertheimer
March 17, 1956. The Warwick New York. Elvis in his hotel bathroom an hour before returning to perform on 'Stage Show.' I love this one…he’s got full concentration. Elvis had just finished showering — he's looking into a small ladies hand mirror to see what's going on with the back of his hair, in a bigger mirror. He's using Vaseline hair tonic, not "bear grease." ©Alfred Wertheimer
March 17, 1956. The Warwick, New York. We got into his room and there was an envelope on the couch with about a hundred letters from fans inside. He plopped down on the couch, pulled his shoes off (exposing his argyle socks) and proceeded to read some of the fan mail. Some letters were six or seven pages long and he was going to read every page. After he finished reading them, he tore them up, explaining "I don't want anyone else reading my mail and I'm not taking it with me."©Alfred Wertheimer
March 17, 1956. Studio 50 New York. This was the crowd after the Dorsey Brothers 'Stage Show.' I just like the snarl. There were about a hundred well wishers at the backstage entrance and fans asking for autographs. The girl on the right was helping with slips of paper — she was so happy to be close to him. And this guy was concerned with keeping Elvis warm. ©Alfred Wertheimer
March 17, 1956. Studio 50 in New York. This image became a Swedish postage stamp, representing the 50th anniversary of Rock and Roll. This is the performance on the Dorsey Brothers 'Stage Show.' In the background is Bill Black on bass, Scottie Moore on guitar and, hidden behind the bass, DJ Fontana on drums.©Alfred Wertheimer
July 1, 1956. The Hudson Theatre, New York. Dress rehearsal for the Steve Allen Show. My classic show business photograph. Steve Allen with his six shooter, Elvis, a dog, guys with musical instruments, Greek columns, stage hands and lighting overhead. I just like the way all the elements come together — how could it be more theatrical?©Alfred Wertheimer
July 1, 1956. The Hudson Theatre, New York. This one was right after the Steve Allen show. Elvis is in his Tumbleweed Presley shirt. He had just played a character in a scripted piece—his first acting roll on TV—and was now getting back into civilian clothes…but then he spots this good looking girl and gets distracted. In the background is Tom Diskin (the Colonel's right hand man) who had originally been offered the deal to be Elvis' manager and turned it down.©Alfred Wertheimer
July 1, 1956. The Hudson Theatre, New York. Elvis leaving the theatre where he had performed on the Steve Allen show. This one is unusual...the black girls who are fans are trying to touch him. You think of Little Richard, but you don’t think of Elvis and black fans.©Alfred Wertheimer
July 2, 1956 RCA Victor Studio 1 New York. This one was during the recording of “Hound Dog.” The room behind him is the visitor’s booth. Elvis is belting it out. There were at least eighteen takes, not all long takes. He had a problem of getting off mic — you had to keep within a range and he would keep moving. I had to get close to the drum to cover the sound of my camera.©Alfred Wertheimer
July 4, 1956. Chattanooga railroad station. This is a segregated lunch counter. This woman got suspicious of me, ordered a tuna fish sandwich and walked in front of my lens. She then moved when she picked up her sandwich to go to the waiting room to eat. ©Alfred Wertheimer
June 30, 1956. The main dining room at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Elvis with his cousin 'Junior' Smith. Junior is thinking about food and Elvis is looking at the girl. 15 minutes later, he’s got his arm around her waist and she’s grinning from ear to ear. Elvis ordered two eggs sunny side down, french fries and bacon. For desert, half a cantaloupe and vanilla ice cream.©Alfred Wertheimer
June 30, 1956. Coffee shop at the Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Virginia. My most popular picture… the New York Times wouldn’t put the kiss on their website, but I have sold more of these (titled Grilled Cheese 20 cents) than all my others combined.©Alfred Wertheimer
June 30, 1956. Backstage at the Mosque Theatre, Richmond, Virginia. Elvis didn't like his women with corsets or hairspray — he was more into the natural look. Here he is messing up Bobbi Owen's hair, trying to annoy her in a cute way but she took it so seriously. I wanted something to show his character and to show he could be playful and that he liked messing around. With Elvis, you never knew what or where he was coming from. He was so spontaneous, you had to be ready, otherwise you'd miss it. That was the fun of it.©Alfred Wertheimer
June 30, 1956. Elvis with Bobbi Owens, backstage at the Mosque Theatre, Richmond, Virginia. Elvis had one of his bodyguards drive from Memphis to South Carolina [400 mikes], pick up Bobbi and bring her up to Richmond. Elvis meets her at the hotel, then he takes her to the theater. After Elvis finishes combing his hair, he disappears on me. I walk down the stairwell … and I see two figures at the end of the hallway ... and I’m thinking about what Capa said, that if you aren’t close enough your photos are probably boring. So I’m going down on the landing and no sooner do I get myself set when she says to him, 'Elvis, I bet you can’t kiss me?' That’s all he needed, so he said, 'I betcha I can.' Two weeks later I developed my film in my laboratory [and realize he'd tried to kiss her twice]. He bent her nose the first time, but the second time it was perfect, tongue to tongue, tip to tip, and [55 years later] she denies on national television that he ever did kiss her… that she was really on her way to Philadelphia to see her boyfriend!©Alfred Wertheimer
July 4, 1956. Lunchtime in Sheffield, Alabama. He’s got his snowcones and chicken wings…and his chocolate milk. Elvis never paid for anything, because he never knew where his money was. I was told that one time RCA gave Elvis $500 petty cash and he forgot where he put it. Elvis was too busy being Elvis — that was enough for him. ©Alfred Wertheimer
July 4, 1956. Train journey going back home. He's reading an Archie comic book. I like the yin and yang of this. I only got one frame off – where he's looking right at me. If you notice, you see this in paintings, in the portraits you have an inner version and an outer vision. Rembrandt does it all the time. One of the eyes of his portraits is looking inward, almost introspective, the other one is looking out of the world. Between the two, it gives a much more intense feeling to a portrait. Now I didn't think about all this when I snapped the shutter from my chest—I didn't even bring the camera to my face as I didn't want to break the mood.©Alfred Wertheimer
July 4, 1956. On the 27 hour train journey back home to Memphis. No more paper towels. People wanted to know if Elvis was gay… is this really a gay pose? How would you pose if you washed your hands and there are no more paper towels? Elvis is shaking his hands to dry them.©Alfred Wertheimer
July 4, 1956. Asleep on the the train journey back home to Memphis. I call this One Eyed Jack. It reminds me of Walter Huston in the film 'The Treasure of Sierra Madre' — the tale of three distrusting prospectors in Mexico — in which he sleeps with one eye open and then the other closed. You don't know it at the time, but the character he plays is blind in one eye. ©Alfred Wertheimer
July 4, 1956. Memphis suburbs. Little did I know he was about to hop off the train 5 miles out of Memphis…didn’t want to go to the train station. The Colonel [his manager] convinced the conductor to stop the train at White Station. Elvis wanted to take a shortcut to his home. This was probably the last time Elvis could walk alone, by himself, without security, down the street.©Alfred Wertheimer
July 4, 1956. 1034 Auburn Drive, Memphis. Elvis behind his home. This is one of my iconic shots. Everyone says that I posed this, but I swear I didn’t. Why won’t the motorcycle start? No gas in the tank.©Alfred Wertheimer
July 4, 1956. 1034 Auburn Drive, Memphis. Elvis liked horseplay — he loved physical activity. Here he is with his cousins Billy Smith (behind) and Bobby Smith (foreground) horsing around in a half-filled swimming pool at home. The valve was broken so they couldn't fill it all. I could stand on the solid base of the pool and shoot at their level.©Alfred Wertheimer
July 4, 1956. 1034 Auburn Drive, Memphis. I call it Pepsi in hand, which it is. This is [Elvis at home] with his cousin, Billy Smith (left), who’s still alive, and Bobby Smith (right), who committed suicide. He took rat poison. I was told he was jealous of Elvis for some reason and wondered why he too couldn't become famous.©Alfred Wertheimer
July 4, 1956. 1034 Auburn Drive, Memphis. With Barbara Hearn listening to playback. The shot of Elvis on the wall is his first publicity shot (the gold frame with a light over the top.) And his mother liked it so much that she went back to the photographer and had it hand painted in color on canvas…looked like a museum painting! Here, Elvis is testing the three songs that he recorded a few days earlier. He had gotten a quick acetate cut, which would play for about 50 takes before it disintegrated. He tried to dance with her, but he was all sweated up, and she said "after you're showered up." He wanted to know if the music was danceable — she said no.©Alfred Wertheimer
July 4, 1956. Russwood Park, Memphis. Elvis is entering the stadium escorted by the local police and fire department, but also by the Shore Police of the Navy. This was Elvis' first charitable benefit show, with proceeds going to The Cynthia Milk Fund and the Variety Club’s Home for Convalescent Children.©Alfred Wertheimer
July 4, 1956. Russwood Park, Memphis. This is one of my iconic shots, which is called “starburst.” I’m above the stage and have my frame set. This young lady, maybe a hundred feet back from stage, let’s go with a flash and it backlights everything I’ve got. It separates the foreground, makes it into a silhouette, and it “flares” me… this is part of my internal camera/shutter apparatus, and makes this entire picture. Without it, it was a dull picture. He told the audience, "Tonight you will see the real Elvis Presley," then proceeded to gyrate all over the stage to the delight of the 14,000 crowd.©Alfred Wertheimer

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