Photos : Elvis Presley 1956
When photography was invented, it created a sensation that reverberated throughout the world. Visual imagery up to that time was the exclusive domain of artists and craftsmen. Suddenly everything changed.
Now a person with a camera and some light could make a 'true to life' picture of someone or something. Some people, including prominent artists, heralded photography as now, perhaps, the best way to make a picture. Others were uncertain and even fearful of this new method of image making.
Some even felt the camera was the work of the devil, stealing a person's very soul.
When Elvis Presley came on the scene in 1956, he had a similar effect.
Elvis' performances on TV and his recordings made him wildly popular, as he redefined American music.
At the same time, his artistry caused feelings of fear and loathing among some people.
His records were burned and he was denounced from the pulpit. He was accused of being immoral.
When a young freelance photographer in New York City named Alfred Wertheimer started taking photographs of Elvis Presley, he had never even heard of him. That's how fresh Elvis was when Wertheimer first observed him with his camera on March 17, 1956, in New York City. Inside his suite at the Warwick Hotel in New York City, Elvis Presley finds an envelope containing dozens of fan letters that were sent to him which he proceeded to read. Elvis was appearing on Stage Show, the popular TV show hosted by the Dorsey Brothers.
Wertheimer was hired by RCA's pop record division to take some press photos of the young, new recording artist they had recently signed. Wertheimer shot about twenty rolls of film that day.
March 17, 1956
With Heartbreak Hotel storming up the national charts Elvis performs this hit along with Blue Suede Shoes.
Just a few months later, Elvis returned to New York City to appear on The Steve Allen Show and to record a few songs for RCA. Elvis and television were made for each other. The new medium of TV was entertaining and exciting and so was Elvis. Wertheimer photographed Elvis during rehearsals for The Steve Allen Show.
One of those photographs, First Arrival, shows Elvis sitting alone at a piano singing and playing gospel music. It is a remarkable photograph that captures the charismatic twenty-one year-old in a private and unguarded moment. It was that image on the cover of Last Train to Memphis - Peter Guralnick's extraordinary biography of Elvis Presley - that first drew me to Alfred Wertheimer's photographs.
June 29, 1956
Elvis arrives in New York in the morning and goes immediately to rehearsals for the upcoming Steve Allen TV-show at a rehearsal in mid-town Manhattan. Due to the controversy over Elvis' performance of 'Hound Dog' on the Milton Berle Show on June 5, and to tone down Elvis' sexy performance, the early order of business was fitting him for the tuxedo he would wear while singing 'Hound Dog' to a basset hound named Sherman.
Many Elvis fans never forgave Steve Allen for this bit, saying it was a deliberate attempt to humiliate Elvis and ridicule the rock 'n' roll. Allen made no secret of disliking. Allen disputed this. Almost 40 years later he insisted he meant no disrespect, that Elvis was in on the gag from the beginning and that Elvis thought it was hilarious.
It is at this rehearsal that photographer Alfred Wertheimer hooks up with Elvis once again and begins a series of pictures that will eloquently chronicle the next week of his life. That night, Elvis catch the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad train to Richmond, Virginia, arriving the next morning.
June 30, 1956
This is familiar ground to Elvis; earlier in the year he'd rocked the state capital's Mosque Theatre twice.
On arriving back in New York, Elvis and his two cousins Junior and Gene Smith take a taxi ride to the Hotel Jefferson. Here he'll have time to rest and prepare for the two concerts scheduled for 5pm and 8pm.
Wertheimer, 'having a foot in the door', decided to take advantage of the opportunity to shoot Elvis again.
On his own, took a train to Richmond to photograph Elvis' two shows at the Mosque Theater.
When asked, what was it about Elvis that made him decide to follow and observe him as a photojournalist, and not for hire? Wertheimer replied that Elvis 'permitted closeness and he made the girls cry'.
'It was a remarkable phenomenon'.
After checking in, Elvis and his cousins go up to their rooms to relax and store away his concert clothes. In the early afternoon, Elvis changes clothes and goes downstairs for a quick snack. Waiting for him is a young lady he'd met while visiting Richmond back in March. All dressed up and excited, she joins Elvis in the coffee shop.
Elvis with a young woman he had just met, sitting at the Jefferson Hotel lunch counter - June 30, 1956
Wertheimer's photographs of Elvis in Richmond taken on June 30 are amazing. His picture of Elvis with a young woman, sitting at the Jefferson Hotel lunch counter is a classic look at 1950s America.
At 4.30 pm, Elvis, his cousins and the Richmond Rose take a taxi ride to the Mosque Theatre.
According to Alfred Wertheimer, Elvis arrived at the rear entrance of the Mosque Theatre. 'I had expected Elvis to march directly up the backstage ramp, it was only twenty minutes to showtime, but instead, he laid back and held court with a the few young ladies who had gathered, all primly dressed in their Sunday best and ready with their Brownie cameras. For someone who was moving up pretty fast he never seemed to be in a rush'.
'He always had time for the fans'.
Not long now to Showtime. On arrival at the theatre, Elvis is met by his drummer, D.J. Fontana.
As fans scream 'We want Elvis!' Outside, their hero is joined backstage by the Jordanaires.
They relax by harmonizing on some gospel songs. They have to quit because Elvis can't hear his backing vocals because of the screaming of the fans. While the support acts try to entertain the packed theatre, Elvis has other things to worry about - such as heating up his Richmond babe ...
Wertheimer's 'fly on the wall' approach to photography is dramatically illustrated in a masterpiece image taken that hot summer day called The Kiss. Photographed in low light at the end of a long, narrow passageway under the fire stairs, The Kiss captures the beauty, style, and sex appeal of the young man from Memphis.
Finally the big moment draws near. With only a few minutes to showtime, Elvis musicians tune up their instruments and prepare to rock and roll. The man everybody is waiting to see stands in the wings ready to bring the house down. 'Heartbreak Hotel', Money Honey'...One hit after another is greeted by screams from the devoted audience. The auditorium is exploding and Elvis enjoys every minute of it. The pandemonium continues for 25 minutes. Then the Memphis Flash gets ready for the grand finale... 'You ain't nuthin' but a houn' dawg...' The band plays loud behind him while Elvis pulls out all the stops to drive the fans to fever pitch. 'You ain't never caught a rabbit, you ain't no friend of mine'. Dropping to his knees with his hair falling over his sweaty brow, he repeats the last verse again and again before rolling over on the dusty stage with his arms outstretched. The fans reach out for him but he is untouchable.
30 June. Richmond, VA. Mosque Theater (Two shows 5pm and 8pm)
Elvis' performances that evening left the audiences in a frenzy.
Photo at right, Elvis, on his knee in front of the foot lights, sings to his 3000 mostly teenage female fans, who were delighted by his presence and his music. He left them in tears of joy. Mosque Theater, Richmond, Va. June 30, 1956 (This photo has been chosen for the cover of the Elvis 1956 Book.)
Alfred Wertheimer talks about Photographing Elvis Presley at 21 (08:17) In this video interview photographer Alfred Wertheimer talks about photographing on this day at the Mosque Theater.
Wertheimer returned to New York City that night with Elvis and his band, along with Elvis' traveling companion and cousin, Junior Smith. Elvis performed live on The Steve Allen Show the next day.
Arriving at the Hudson Theater in New York City to perform on the Steve Allen comedy show, Elvis is greeted by a female fan who had come all the way in from Long Island to meet her idol. New York City. July 1, 1956.
Elvis Presley : Arriving at the Hudson Theater in New York City to perform on the Steve Allen comedy show : July 1, 1956.
July 1, 1956 : Elvis appears on The Steve Allen Show
As Elvis left the Hudson Theater, his fans reached out for an autograph and to touch their idol. NBC Television, Hudson Theater, New York City. July 1, 1956. (Photo © Alfred Wertheimer. All rights reserved.)
Later on the same night Elvis stopped by Hy Gardner's live TV interview show, looking a lot like one of the performers he most admired, the late James Dean. 'I don't feel like I'm doing anything wrong', he told Gardner. 'I don't see how any type of music would have any bad influence on people'.
'How would rock ‘n' roll music make anyone rebel against their parents?'
Elvis Hy Gardner Interview Warwick Hotel - New York July 1, 1956 (08:37)
July 2, 1956 RCA Studio's : New York
On July 2, Elvis recorded three songs at RCA's Studio One.
Two of those songs, 'Don't Be Cruel' and 'Hound Dog', were released as the A and B sides of the same single.
To this day, it is the only single ever released where both sides went to number one on the record charts.
Elvis Presley and The Jordanaires - RCA Sudio 1 : July 2, 1956.
Above, Elvis, in deep concentration, sits on the floor of the recording studio listening to a playback of his latest take of 'Don’t Be Cruel'. Everyone was focused on him to await his reaction.
July 3, 1956
The next day, July 3, Presley, along with his band, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, Junior Smith, and Wertheimer, boarded a train at New York City's Penn Station. Elvis was returning home to Memphis and a much-anticipated July 4 concert at Russwood Park stadium. After their hometown boy made it big on TV in New York City, this concert was going to be a homecoming of sorts. It was a 27-hour trip home, and Elvis spent some of the time listening to the acetate copy he had of his three new songs, playing them over and over on his portable record player. Wertheimer's pictures of Elvis on the train reveal a young artist deeply and critically immersed in his music. Presley's absorption in his music was not a casual thing.
Gene Smith and Elvis Presley on the Southern Railroad between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tenn. July 4, 1956
Nearing Memphis after a 27 hour long trip, Elvis freshens upon the train only to find after washing his hands there are no more paper towels. Not making a big fuss, he shakes his hands dry. July 4, 1956.
When the train finally got near Memphis, Elvis asked to get off at a stop near the outskirts of town called White Station. It was closer to his home on Audubon Drive than the main station in Memphis. Wertheimer did not miss this moment with his camera and as a result, he captured a truly remarkable series of images of Elvis walking as a regular person for what may have been the last time. Wertheimer describes that moment: With only the quick acetate cuts, no luggage or instruments, he hopped off the train and headed down a grassy knoll towards the sidewalk of this little town. Between telephone poles and Cadillacs, Elvis stopped to ask a black woman on the street for directions and then turned to wave to us on the train. As the train started moving, I quickly figured that I was better off taking pictures of what was going on in front of me instead of jumping off the train and following Elvis. If I had stopped to collect my bags and all my equipment, I would have missed what was probably one of the last times he could just walk down the street like an ordinary guy.
Within a few short months, Elvis Presley would be the most talked-about entertainer in the world. No one would ever again be able to photograph Elvis as Alfred Wertheimer had.
Wertheimer captured Elvis at a crossroads of culture.
He, with his camera, was our witness to the hero's return.
Memphis, Tennessee, July 4, 1956
When Elvis reached Audubon Drive, he was welcomed home by his beloved mother, Gladys, his father, Vernon, his grandmother, Minnie Mae, and his high school sweetheart, Barbara Hearn, along with other cousins, friends and neighbors. Wertheimer photographed Elvis' homecoming, even going so far as to photograph Elvis while swimming with him in his new pool and while riding with him on the back of his Harley Davidson.
Elvis Presley : Russwood Park, Memphis, Tennessee : July 4, 1956
Wertheimer has repeatedly said that 'Elvis permitted closeness', and he appreciated the opportunity to get close to Elvis as a photojournalist. Wertheimer accompanied Elvis to his concert that evening at Russwood Park stadium. The sheriff arrived at the Presley home in his police car. Elvis sat in the middle of the front seat, in between the sheriff and the colonel. Wertheimer sat in the backseat alone. When they arrived, Wertheimer photographed Elvis moving through the surging crowd that was trying to get as close as possible to him.
The air was electric. Fourteen thousand people were on hand to celebrate the new, liberating, and thrilling music performed by one of their own. Just a few days earlier, Elvis had had to follow a script and perform in a tuxedo on The Steve Allen Show in New York City. Feeling good and happy to be home, Elvis told his Memphis audience, 'Tonight, you're going to see what the real Elvis is all about'.
Elvis put on a mesmerizing performance, the crowd loved it, and Wertheimer photographed it all.
After Elvis left the stadium, Wertheimer hopped a night train back to New York City. Elvis went on to unprecedented fame and fortune as a musical artist. But it is Alfred Wertheimer's photographs, and his alone, that remind us of a time in America when a young man from Mississippi could change the world with a song.
We are fortunate indeed to have Alfred Wertheimer's photographs of Elvis Presley in 1956.
They are the most compelling photographs of the greatest rock 'n' roll icon of all time.
July 5, 1956
Elvis begins his first real vacation that he has had since gaining national recognition.
July 6, 1956
She and her mother were injured in an auto accident the previous day, as they returned home from a picnic to get ready to attend Elvis' performance at Russwood Baseball Park.
July 9 -12, 1956
On July 9, Elvis showed up unexpectedly at June Juanico's house in Biloxi.
Elvis' presence in Biloxi fuels escalating rumors that he is engaged to June. June Juanico is a girl Elvis met just one year ago in Biloxi, Mississippi. Elvis spends much of the next three weeks in Biloxi.
Moving initially into a villa at the Gulf Hills Dude Ranch resort , then into a private home nearby, after his car is scratched and covered with messages by fans in the Sun 'N' Sand parking lot.
July 10, Elvis' presence in Biloxi fuels escalating rumors that he is engaged to June.
After hearing the rumors articulated on a New Orleans radio station, he and June drive to New Orleans with the rest of the gang to dispel it, then visit the Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park before heading back to Biloxi. Following is an interview with Jim Steward in New Orleans. Elvis talks about the bad publicity after The Milton Berle Show . Talks about not having yet recorded 'Hound Dog' and meeting Gene Vincent.
Interview with Jim Steward New Orleans Louisiana - July 10, 1956 (02:10)
July 12, Elvis, June and the guys go deep-sea fishing on the Aunt Jennie with June's mother, May, and her boyfriend Eddie Bellman. They have so much fun that Elvis calls his parents and invites them to come down and join him. Vernon and Gladys Presley arrive in Biloxi on the 13th. Gladys reports to Elvis that the Sun 'N' Sand parking lot is filled with fans who think he has returned to the hotel, not realizing that the pink-and-white Cadillac is hers. The following day Elvis takes his parents deep-sea fishing.
Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, Memphis : June 1, 1956
Elvis Presley : June 3, 1956
Elvis Presley : June 8, 1956
Elvis on the Wink Martindale TV Show : June 16, 1956
Elvis Presley: Richmond - June 30, 1956
Elvis Presley : RCA Studio One, Memphis, Tennessee : July 2, 1956
Elvis Presley : On The Train to, Memphis, Tennessee : July 3, 1956
Elvis Presley : Russwood Park, Memphis, Tennessee : July 4, 1956
Elvis Presley : Joseph's Hospital Memphis Tennessee : July 6, 1956
Back Link Elvis Presley 1956 (Day by Day)
Most photos from the book Elvis 1956
Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer
128 pages, 8 1/4" x 10 1/2"
72 tritone photographs
November 2009 Publication