Photos capture 'The King' before he had a court in 'Elvis at 21'

by Chuck Myers

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

16 January 2011

"Elvis Reading Fan Mail" inside the Warrick Hotel in New York City on March 17, 1956 is featured in the exhibition "Elvis at 21: Photographs by
Arthur Wertheimer" at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., through January 23. (National Portrait Gallery/MCT) 

WASHINGTON — Before the renowned swiveling hips and the moniker “The King,” Elvis Presley maintained a hectic schedule as he navigated his way to music stardom.

And photographer Alfred Wertheimer was there to keep pace with Presley’s every move.

In 1956, RCA Victor hired Wertheimer, then 26, to follow and photograph promotional images of the music phenom, himself only 21, as he toured and made public appearances.

What Wertheimer eventually recorded, however, went well beyond the realm of mere publicity stills.

Today, a selection of Wertheimer’s photographs offers a rare, behind-the-scenes look at this phase of Presley’s career at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition, “Elvis at 21; Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer,” features 56 photographs that focus on a short but seminal timeframe in the rock icon’s life.

Wertheimer picked up Presley’s trail in March 1956, as the young musician hit New York City for a television appearance on “Stage Show,” then produced by Jackie Gleason.


“Elvis on the Southern Railroad between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee, is featured in “Elvis at 21: Photographs by Arthur Wertheimer” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., through January 23. (National Portrait Gallery/MCT)

Scenes of Presley performing on the show are juxtaposed with more intimate views during this New York visit, such as his reading fan mail in relaxed repose and walking alone on a sidewalk outside the Warren Hotel.

Wertheimer’s images shift to Richmond, Va., where, on June 30, Presley played two shows at the Mosque Theater.

Backstage moments at the Mosque gig contrast sharply with photos of Presley onstage. In one photo inside his dressing room, he covers his ears to mute the sounds coming from the street. Another group of works entitled “Prelude to a Kiss, backstage, Mosque Theater” portrays Presley in a very different mode — pitching serious woo to a young woman before moving in for “The Kiss.”

Returning to New York City, Wertheimer captured perhaps some of the most important images on display here: Presley cutting two legendary tunes in the studio, “Hound Dog” and Don’t Be Cruel.”

Recording session images spotlight Presley singing in to a microphone with his head arched back; working with his support group, the Jordanaires; and with guitar in hand as he lays down “Hound Dog.”

Nearby a serious, yet seemingly meditative Presley appears seated on the floor, with legs crossed, and listening to a playback of “Don’t Be Cruel.”

Wertheimer also registered the effect Presley was having on female admirers, particularly with an expressive one-on-one encounter on a New York City street. A prim and proper female fan breaks down with joy in “He Could Make Young Girls Cry,” as Presley gives her an autograph outside the Hudson Theater.


In “The Kiss,” photographer Alfred Wertheimer captured Elvis Presley kissing a young woman in a hallway at the Mosque Theater in Richmond, Virginia, on June 30, 1956. The photograph is found in “Elvis at 21: Photographs by Arthur Wertheimer” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., through January 23. (National Portrait Gallery/MCT)

Following the studio time and a performance on “The Steve Allen Show,” the photographer accompanied Presley home to Memphis, Tenn., by train.

A piece produced inside a train washroom shows Presley shaking his extended hands, with wrists and finders pointed down, as if he’s striking a stage move. In fact though, he’s simply jiggling his hands dry following a wash.

During a breakfast stop in Chattanooga, Tenn., Presley turns up in one shot seated at a diner counter, with an African-American woman seated at a different part of the counter — a not so subtle depiction of “separate but equal” segregation in the South during the period.

A five-print sequence follows Presley as he exits the train and walks home alone. Wertheimer, still on board the train, snapped the photographs as the train pulled away. Solitary moments such as this would soon become few and far between for Presley as his fame spread.

Photos from the final day Wertheimer spent photographing Presley, July 4, once again distinguish Presley’s private world with his public persona.

In separate images taken at his home, Presley stands at ease with his father outdoors, and indoors visiting with his mother, shirtless after a swim. In another, he’s seen hanging out still shirtless, seated on a sofa with a former high school sweetheart.

Wertheimer’s efforts cap off with pictures of Presley in concert once again, before a huge audience at Russwood Park in Memphis.

A quartet of works from the performance includes “Starburst,” a rear view stage shot in which Presley appears from behind with his guitar slung under his right arm. A bright burst from a flashbulb that went off in the background, at just the right moment, casts a brilliant spotlight over the scene — an instant emblematic of a career about to blaze across the music world spectrum.

“Elvis at 21; Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer” remains on display through Jan. 23.

The exhibit will visit the James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pa. (Feb. 19-May. 5); William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, Little Rock, Ark., (June 4-Aug. 21); Mobile Museum of Art, Mobile, Ala. (Sept. 10-Dec. 4); Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Va. (Dec. 24-March 18, 2012); and Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene, Kan. (April 7-July 1, 2012).


The National Portrait Gallery is located at 8th and F Streets NW.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to p.m. daily.
Admission: Free
Exhibit Web site: www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/exhelvis21.html


“Starburst” captures Elvis Presley from behind during a performance in Memphis, Tennessee, on July 4, 1956. The photograph is found in “Elvis at 21: Photographs by Arthur Wertheimer” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., through January 23. (National Portrait Gallery/MCT)

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