From: 29th Anniversary Issue, August 2006
(7 Days With Elvis, 4000 Photos, 50 Years Ago)
by Phil Arnold
Alfred Wertheimer is sometimes called the godfather of rock & roll photography, and he well deserves the title. As a struggling twenty-six year old free-lance photojournalist in New York City, Wertheimer’s good fortune gained him access to Elvis Presley during that first, heady flush of fame in 1956. The resulting photos captured the everyday Elvis, relaxed and off-guard during down times. Now, Al Wertheimer’s classic photos are the most esteemed collection of pictures of Elvis Presley ever taken.
Elvis…The Magazine has been fortunate to have Wertheimer’s photos of Elvis featured in nine issues over the years. Now, on the 50th anniversary of his photo-taking extravaganza with Elvis, it’s time to honor Al Wertheimer’s remarkable achievement. Here’s the story.
RCA Victor Records bought Elvis’ contract from Sam Phillips for $40,000 in December 1955. Their new artist was hot in the mid-south and southwest, but unknown in the rest of the country. So, it was important for them to get Elvis booked on national TV. On January 28, 1956, Elvis made his first of six appearances on Stage Show, which starred Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. About halfway through this engagement, RCA realized they had nothing in their photo file on Elvis. They needed to get a few publicity shots.
In early 1956, Al Wertheimer shared a studio with six other photographers. One of them, Paul Schulzer, introduced him to Ann Fulchino in the Public Relations department of RCA Victor Records. She put Wertheimer on a list of free-lance photographers she would call as various assignments came up. When jobs went out to people, they would move to the bottom of the list. Al Wertheimer happened to be on the top of that list when she needed the Elvis pictures, so he got the call. She asked if he was free on March 17 to take some shots at the Dorsey Brothers show. Wertheimer was a fan of big band music, so he jumped at the chance.
Then she told him he would actually be photographing Elvis Presley. After a pregnant pause, Wertheimer said, “Elvis who?” He had never heard of Elvis Presley. He also had no clue how drastically this job would change his life.
It was just a one-day assignment at the rehearsal and telecast of Elvis’ fifth Dorsey Brothers Stage Show in New York. RCA wanted photos for release to newspapers: head shots; Elvis at the microphone; Elvis with fans; or, best of all, Elvis with celebrities. Al Wertheimer took the required photographs, but he didn’t stop there.
By the time he parted company with Elvis that night, Wertheimer had snapped over 400 photos of Elvis, nearly all of which caught casual off-stage moments. Wertheimer was able to shoot before, during and after the Dorsey show rehearsal, as well as back stage before the live telecast.
But, in between the rehearsal and the national telecast, Elvis had hours of free time, and Wertheimer tagged along for every bit of it. They walked back to the Warwick Hotel together. Along the way, there was a stop at the Supreme Men’s Shop where Elvis considered several shirts but purchased none. Then, it was up to Elvis’ suite. At that point, Elvis had known Wertheimer for only five hours, but he obviously felt comfortable around the young photographer. Elvis stretched out on the couch and looked through 200 fan letters he dumped out of a sack. Wertheimer took more shots, then settled into a nearby chair and fell asleep.
Sometime later, Wertheimer woke up to the buzzing of an electric razor. Elvis had showered and was getting ready for the TV show. Wertheimer asked if he could step inside the bathroom and snap more pictures (Elvis had pants on), and that was fine with Elvis. Soon, Wertheimer got to observe from the closest perspective the nuances of Elvis doing his hair combing ritual.
After the TV telecast was over, Elvis left through the stage door and was surrounded by approximately 100 screaming teenage girls. Wertheimer suspected that Ann Fulchino of RCA had encouraged this by contacting local fan clubs, but he could tell the enthusiasm was genuine. Elvis launched into serious autograph signing, obviously loving every minute of it. Al Wertheimer climbed on an up-side-down trashcan and clicked away from behind what he called “this sea of hair.” After Wertheimer was back on the ground, a girl asked him “Are you anybody?” Sadly, he had to tell her “No.”
Wertheimer turned in to RCA Victor the dozen shots he felt were best suited to their needs. They licensed the rights to use them for promotional purposes like press kits, or to put them on the back of future album covers. RCA also got what are called ‘Contact Sheets,’ Each one contained the images from a roll of his film, and they provided an inventory of other available photos. However, all the negatives belonged to Al Wertheimer. He didn’t know how much good these pictures would do him, but he had a hunch.
Two months later, Alfred Wertheimer was hired for a second round of photos. Elvis was all over the news then. There had been a national outrage over his wild performance of “Hound Dog” three weeks earlier on his second Milton Berle Show appearance. Elvis’ gyrating hips were blasted as ‘suggestive and vulgar’ by dozens of newspapers and hundreds of preachers in pulpits.
In the midst of this furor, Al Wertheimer quietly slipped back into Elvis’ orbit. Elvis was always happy with a group of guys around him, and Wertheimer quickly became one of the boys.
The first day of Wertheimer’s new job was June 29, during the read-through rehearsal in New York for Elvis’ only appearance on the Steve Allen Show. This will always be remembered as the show where Elvis had to dress up in a tux and sing to a basset hound sitting on a 2 x 3 foot platform atop a high pedestal.
No sooner was rehearsal over, when Elvis and crew headed to Penn Station to board a train. In the day-and-a-half opening between the rehearsal and the actual Steve Allen Show telecast, they had to ride overnight to Richmond, give two concerts, and ride the train back to New York. This was precision logistics thanks to Col. Parker, who also put no restrictions on Wertheimer during the train rides. Wertheimer had free reign during the Richmond concerts, too, because Col. Parker spent the whole time up-front dealing with business matters.
It was during the Richmond performances that Wertheimer had his real epiphany about Elvis. While Elvis sang, Wertheimer watched the audience and was amazed at how many teenage girls were crying — hugging each other and crying. Wertheimer now says, “In my experience, nobody’s ever made the girls cry. They’ve made them jump, scream, yell, cheer, but not cry … That was my clue. Anybody who could make the girls cry is going to be a huge success. And, I better stick around.”
Once the train arrived back in New York, they all headed to the Hudson Theater where the Steve Allen Show originated. During the dress rehearsal, Elvis had fun with the basset hound, and Wertheimer got a whole sequence of shots. Steve Allen was determined that nothing like what happened on the Berle show would happen on his. The tuxedo and the basset hound on a pedestal effectively cut down on the movements Elvis could do. Wertheimer observed that Elvis knew he was being controlled but was a good sport about it.
The next day Wertheimer accompanied Elvis to the RCA Victor recording studios in New York and witnessed the birth of “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Col. Parker was not at this recording session, allowing Wertheimer more unimpeded access. This time, Wertheimer brought two rolls of color film along, as well as all the usual black-and-white. That turned out to be a smart move. Later that year, he licensed the rights for one of the color photos to TV Guide for the first of their many Elvis covers. He received $250, big bucks back in 1956.
The next day was July 3, and Elvis had a benefit concert to do in Memphis on the night of the Fourth of July. So, it was back to Penn Station to start a twenty-seven hour train ride to Memphis. This trip was unlike the train rides to and from Richmond. They were at night and everybody slept. This trip provided daylight travel during large portions of two days. Wertheimer got to spend lots of time with Elvis – and the Colonel.
Wertheimer took some shots of Col. Parker. Although it may not have been intended, this warmed up Parker, and he and Wertheimer had several good conversations. After watching Col. Parker in action and talking with him, Wertheimer said, “This guy is pretty smart. He’s thinks like a chess player. You know, he’s thinking way ahead – three or four moves ahead. He has a great understanding of cause and effect”
There has to be some hi-jinks on a long train ride, and this trip had some. A huge stuffed Panda showed up from nowhere. Wertheimer thought maybe the Colonel snuck it in. Elvis and the guys loved it. The Panda moved around and got used as a pillow a lot, but it always had his own seat next to somebody. That night, Wertheimer went to Elvis’ compartment, where he was listening to acetates of the recent recordings. The Panda was on his upper berth, strapped in with its legs coming through the webbing.
The next day Elvis put the Panda on his hip and walked down the aisle of the passenger car. It became a prop as he flirted with the girls on board. When two teenagers didn’t believe he really was Elvis, he pointed to Wertheimer and said, “See that photographer over there? Would he be taking my picture if I wasn’t Elvis Presley?”
Wertheimer was now traveling on his own tab. He took it upon himself to complete his Elvis photo story by accompanying Elvis to Memphis to see him at home with his family. When the train arrived in Memphis, Wertheimer got to spend the afternoon hanging out at Elvis’ recently-purchased house at 1034 Audubon Drive.
Gladys and Vernon had no problem with Wertheimer coming into their home and snapping all kinds of pictures. He got along so well with Gladys that historians consider him an authority on her. He says, “I seemed to become the resident expert on Gladys Presley, even though I was only around her a few hours.” Wertheimer was interviewed extensively about her for a book, and Elvis Presley Enterprises has also gone to him to get a sense of what she was like and her relationship with Elvis.
One of Wertheimer’s shots that day was of Elvis with no shirt on, a boil and pimples on his back in full view. A German magazine licensed the rights to use that picture years later and airbrushed Elvis’ back clean. Wertheimer feels his original image shows that none of his Elvis photos were posed; that all his shots were of the real Elvis.
At 7:30 that night, Col. Parker showed up at Elvis’ home. Shortly after that, the local Sheriff arrived. He drove Elvis, Parker, and Wertheimer to Russwood Stadium for the homecoming concert. Wertheimer got one shot in the squad car and dozens at the concert. This was Elvis’ triumphant return home. As he told the 14,000 fans, “You’re going to see the ‘real’ Elvis Presley.” When it was over, the Sheriff drove Elvis home, and Col. Parker took Wertheimer to the train station.
During the two-day trip back to New York, Alfred Wertheimer had time to reflect on what had happened during the past six days: a TV show rehearsal and telecast, a concert in Richmond, a major recording session at RCA Victor, three long train rides, an afternoon with Elvis’ family at their home, and a big holiday concert in Memphis. To simply share all that with Elvis would be reward enough, but Wertheimer also had rolls and rolls and rolls of film.
The exact number of pictures has been subject to speculation and two earlier magazine articles on Wertheimer used the round number of 4000. He says this is too high; that what really counts is the number of marketable photos. After culling out the unusable shots (too dark, out of focus, etc.), Wertheimer says he has 2053 photos to license for future commercial ventures.
Wertheimer abstained from using flash bulbs. He took the attitude of being ‘a fly on the wall,’ unnoticed and able to catch the casual un-posed moments. So, he used two small and very quiet 35 mm Nikon S-2 Rangefinder cameras with no flashes, which kept Elvis oblivious to Wertheimer’s presence most of the time.
Without a flash, it was often necessary for Wertheimer to use very slow shutter speeds to get enough light for a good exposure. This technique is called using “available light,’ but Wertheimer pushed it to extremes and coined the phrase ‘using available darkness.” He says, “The darker your environment, the more people let it all hang out.” That certainly worked with Elvis.
During 1956 and 1957, Wertheimer licensed some of his Elvis photos to magazines including Life, Pageant, Coronet, Colliers, Look, and several teen fanzines. He co-published a newsstand magazine called The Amazing Elvis Presley that sold 400,000 copies with a cover price of 35 cents.
However, once Elvis was drafted into the Army in 1958, and was stationed in Germany, demand for Wertheimer’s Elvis Presley photos fell off substantially. Wertheimer derived no income from his Elvis photos for the next nineteen years. During that time, Elvis was arguably the most photographed man in the world. The media seemed happy with current Elvis photos, and cared little about shots of young Elvis.
All that changed on August 16, 1977. Within 24 hours of Elvis’ death, Time Magazine called and asked if Wertheimer had anything they could use. Soon, all sorts of media hungry for classic images of the young Elvis rediscovered Wertheimer’s archives. “And the phone hasn’t really stopped ringing in the last thirty years,” he says.
Wertheimer’s photos of Elvis have now appeared in countless books, calendars, watches, posters, and gallery prints. The book “Elvis ’56,” published in 1979, is a remarkable collection of Wertheimer’s pictures that, as one critic noted, “Had the intimacy of a diary and the authority of a historical document. “Elvis ‘56” is also the title of a 1987 video that used about four hundred of Wertheimer’s images, many of which have not appeared in print.
Alfred Wertheimer is excited about his next venture, a coffee table book titled “Elvis at 21: From New York to Memphis.” Unfortunately, it won’t be published in time for Elvis Week this year, but he will still be there as usual — doing a slide show and telling stories at the “Elvis Insiders Conference.” He will be the hit of the day. Al Wertheimer has great Elvis stories, and he loves to tell them.
© 2006 Philip R Arnold All Rights Reserved
Contributing Editor, Phil Arnold is also host of ELVISBLOG. www.elvisblog.net