This is the front cover of the latest book of Elvis photographs by Alfred Wertheimer. His iconic 1956 photos of Elvis have appeared in several other books, DVDs, calendars, and more products than you can count. I had the good fortune to be selected by Al Wertheimer to write the forward for Elvis: The Early Years. He was pleased with an article I wrote about him that appeared four years ago in Elvis International magazine, so he recommended me to the book publisher.
That earlier article became the outline for the forward, but Wertheimer wanted much new information added. We agreed on a title for the forward that incorporated a line he had written years earlier. When describing how Col. Parker severely restricted media access to Elvis in late 1956, Wertheimer said, “I believed an opaque curtain had been lowered around Elvis.”
So, here is the forward I wrote for Alfred Wertheimer’s new book, Elvis: The Early Years. It tells an interesting story about both Alfred Wertheimer and young Elvis Presley. I hope you like it.
Al Wertheimer in his office, surrounded by his photos of Elvis
Elvis Presley – Before the Opaque Curtain Fell
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. However, opportunities like this ceased to exist shortly thereafter, as Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker, imposed strict limits on media access to him. Wertheimer characterized this situation with an apt analogy: “I believed an opaque curtain had been lowered around Elvis.”
As a result, Alfred Wertheimer’s classic photos are the most esteemed collection of pictures of Elvis Presley ever taken.
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 the CBS program 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, Alfred 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 a photographer finished a job, he 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 project 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.
Elvis looking at shirts at the Supreme Men’s Shop in New York City
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 large manila envelope. 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.
Elvis at the Warwick Hotel, NYC, March 17, 1956
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 covers of future albums. 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, Alfred 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 on NBC. 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.
Elvis performing at the Mosque Theater in Richmond , Virginia
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.
Elvis and hound dog on the Steve Allen Show
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 was scheduled to give a benefit concert 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, which 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.
Two hours outside of Memphis heading to his home, July 4, 1956
A long train ride can be boring for young people, and often this is broken up by hi-jinks. Elvis’ travelling party had some when 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. It became another personality on board and 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 left hip and walked down the aisle of the passenger cars. It became a prop as he flirted with the girls on board. Elvis would ask, “Are you coming to my concert tonight?” Two teenage girls responded, “Who are you? He told them, “I’m Elvis Presley,” but when they didn’t believe him, Elvis pointed to Wertheimer and said, “See that photographer over there? Would he be taking my picture if I wasn’t Elvis Presley?”
Elvis with Panda bear flirting with girls on train to Memphis
Wertheimer was now travelling 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. The German magazine Kristal licensed the rights to use that picture a few years later and airbrushed Elvis’ back clean. After Elvis’ death, another German magazine, Stern, published the same photograph with the pimples showing. Wertheimer feels his original image shows that none of his Elvis photos were posed — 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 Park 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.” This was a pointed reference to the ridiculous way he was presented on the Steve Allen Show.
When the concert was over, the Sheriff drove Elvis Presley home, and Col. Parker took Alfred 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 itself, but Wertheimer also had rolls and rolls and rolls of film.
The exact number of free-lance photographs he took has been subject to speculation and two earlier magazine articles on Wertheimer used the round number of 3800. 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 around 2000 commercially viable photos to license for future ventures.
One of Wertheimer's most commercially viable photos — used for the cover of
Elvis: The Early Years
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 his presence most of the time. Wertheimer admits that if the assignment had occurred a few years later, he might have screwed it up by having Elvis pose. However, at this early point of their careers in 1956, Elvis didn’t know the rules, and Wertheimer didn’t know the rules. “We made up our own rules.”
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 jokingly 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.
Wertheimer has said he treats a photo subject as though it was a still life, moving closer and closer with each shot. Fortunately, Elvis permitted closeness. He had a sixth sense that film images would be necessary to his continued success.
Alfred with his high-rise soup bowl invention – photo by Jill Furmanovsky
Alfred Wertheimer had one additional chance to photograph Elvis Presley two years later. When Elvis was drafted into the Army in 1958, the press reported he would be treated just like any other GI. Perhaps this was the case during basic training in Texas, but when it was time for Elvis and 6,000 other soldiers to board the USS Randall at the Brooklyn Port of Embarkation, strange things happened.
Col. Parker made sure Elvis’ send-off was a big event. For one thing, it was estimated that 250 reporters, photographers, and cameramen were on the scene. One of them was Alfred Wertheimer, who did not have an exclusive this time, but he got plenty of good pictures. He was also in position to see the master marketer, Col. Tom Parker, in action.
Wertheimer didn’t know if the official US Army Band was present at all major troop deployments, but they were there the day Elvis shipped out. Perhaps Col. Parker arranged for their appearance or perhaps not, but he still engineered a first in US Army history.
He had printed up copies of the music to several Elvis songs and delivered them to the band leader who in turn passed them out to all the musicians. Songs they played that day included “That’s All Right,” “Hound Dog,” “Don’t be Cruel,” “Tutti Fruitti” and others. No John Philip Sousa marches to mark this occasion. Dressed in full Army Class A uniforms, the band played Elvis rock & roll.
Elvis held forth with a half-hour press conference where he was positioned in front of big “Join the Army” posters. There was one Army General, in civilian clothes, who would not leave Elvis’ side. He enjoyed being in the spotlight so much that he hovered around Elvis the entire time.
Elvis at press conference during troop deployment on USS Randall
The hoards of photographers and cameramen wanted to get film of Elvis going up the gangplank from the dock to the second deck of the ship. Five soldiers were selected to join Elvis in the shot to make it look natural. Of course, Elvis was carrying going-away presents as well as his duffel bag. He was also in his Class A uniform, while the other guys already on the ship for the most part were in dark green work fatigues. Several photographer shouted, ”Could we have one more shot?” and the Public Information Officer complied by having the five soldiers and Elvis do the gangplank boarding action all over again. Wertheimer and others watching were amused at what was taking place.
The ship had four decks and soon Elvis appeared on the one below the top deck along with Col. Parker. Wertheimer wondered to himself, “What is Parker doing on the troop ship?” To give something to Elvis, it turned out. Elvis opened a box from Parker, and guess what it contained? Dozens of playing-card-sized autographed photos of Elvis.
After Colonel Parker was escorted off the ship, the tug boats began pushing the USS Randall out into New York Harbor. Elvis then flipped the cards, a hand full at a time, over the railing and they fluttered down to lucky fans standing on the dock four decks below as the band played “Hound Dog.” Next stop Germany. Just your average troop deployment.
Once Elvis settled into his Army service in Germany, demand for Wertheimer’s Presley photos fell off substantially. Alfred 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 Alfred Wertheimer’s archives. It was then that Wertheimer realized he probably had the first and last look at the day-to-day life of Elvis Presley. Millions of fans around the world are thankful that Alfred Wertheimer and his camera met Elvis before the opaque curtain fell.
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