March 5, 2013 4:00 AM EST

“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!”

Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 elderly and disabled during a Holy Thursday ritual in Rome. In 2013, a mere two weeks into his papacy, the Pope decided to perform the pre-Easter ritual on women and Muslim inmates at a juvenile detention center, breaking with papal tradition to have only Catholic men participate (because Jesus' 12 disciples were men). This year, the Pope continued to break with longstanding rules by including women and non-Catholics. The Vatican has not yet released the religious backgrounds of all the participants, but they said they came from various religious backgrounds. The Pope told the gathered crowd that he performs the ritual in order to remind himself of hos wo help others, according to the Washington Post. “Jesus made a gesture, a job, the service of a slave, a servant,” he said. “And he leaves this inheritance to us: We need to be servants to one another.” [AP]
©Alfred Wertheimer

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.

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