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March 7, 2013

“Elvis Who?” - 25 Rare and Intimate Photographs of the Young and Rising Star Named Elvis Presley in 1956

No photographer would ever get as close to Elvis as Alfred Wertheimer. His intimate photographs of the young, rising star reveal a carefree and innocent time before he became a cultural icon. 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.

Upon graduation in 1953, Wertheimer 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.

Fulchino 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.

March 17, 1956. The Warwick, New York. A cold winter's day in March. Here Elvis is walking into his hotel alone.

March 17, 1956. Backstage at the Dorsey Brothers 'Stage Show' rehearsal.

March 17, 1956. The Warwick New York. Elvis in his hotel bathroom an hour before returning to perform on 'Stage Show.'

March 17, 1956. The Warwick, New York. Here is Elvis' room and there was an envelope on the couch with about a hundred letters from fans inside. He plopped down on the couch and proceeded to read some of the fan mail. Some letters were six or seven pages long and he was going to read every page. After he finished reading them, he tore them up, explaining "I don't want anyone else reading my mail and I'm not taking it with me."

March 17, 1956. Studio 50 New York. This was the crowd after the Dorsey Brothers 'Stage Show.'

March 17, 1956. Studio 50 in New York. This image became a Swedish postage stamp, representing the 50th anniversary of Rock and Roll. This is the performance on the Dorsey Brothers 'Stage Show.' In the background is Bill Black on bass, Scottie Moore on guitar and, hidden behind the bass, DJ Fontana on drums.

July 1, 1956. The Hudson Theatre, New York. Dress rehearsal for the Steve Allen Show. My classic show business photograph. Steve Allen with his six shooter, Elvis, a dog, guys with musical instruments, Greek columns, stage hands and lighting overhead.

July 1, 1956. The Hudson Theatre, New York. This one was right after the Steve Allen show. Elvis is in his Tumbleweed Presley shirt. He had just played a character in a scripted piece—his first acting roll on TV—and was now getting back into civilian clothes…but then he spots this good looking girl and gets distracted. In the background is Tom Diskin (the Colonel's right hand man) who had originally been offered the deal to be Elvis' manager and turned it down.

July 1, 1956. The Hudson Theatre, New York. Elvis leaving the theatre where he had performed on the Steve Allen show. This one is unusual...the black girls who are fans are trying to touch him. You think of Little Richard, but you don’t think of Elvis and black fans.

July 2, 1956 RCA Victor Studio 1 New York. During the recording of “Hound Dog.” The room behind him is the visitor’s booth. Elvis is belting it out. There were at least eighteen takes, not all long takes. He had a problem of getting off mic — you had to keep within a range and he would keep moving.

July 4, 1956. Chattanooga railroad station. This is a segregated lunch counter.

June 30, 1956. The main dining room at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Elvis with his cousin 'Junior' Smith. Junior is thinking about food and Elvis is looking at the girl. 15 minutes later, he’s got his arm around her waist and she’s grinning from ear to ear. Elvis ordered two eggs sunny side down, french fries and bacon. For desert, half a cantaloupe and vanilla ice cream.

June 30, 1956. Coffee shop at the Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Virginia.

June 30, 1956. Backstage at the Mosque Theatre, Richmond, Virginia. Elvis didn't like his women with corsets or hairspray — he was more into the natural look. Here he is messing up Bobbi Owen's hair, trying to annoy her in a cute way but she took it so seriously.

June 30, 1956. Elvis with Bobbi Owens, backstage at the Mosque Theatre, Richmond, Virginia. Elvis had one of his bodyguards drive from Memphis to South Carolina [400 mikes], pick up Bobbi and bring her up to Richmond. Elvis meets her at the hotel, then he takes her to the theater.

July 4, 1956. Lunchtime in Sheffield, Alabama. He’s got his snowcones and chicken wings…and his chocolate milk. Elvis never paid for anything, because he never knew where his money was.

July 4, 1956. Train journey going back home. He's reading an Archie comic book.

July 4, 1956. On the 27 hour train journey back home to Memphis. No more paper towels. People wanted to know if Elvis was gay… is this really a gay pose? How would you pose if you washed your hands and there are no more paper towels? Elvis is shaking his hands to dry them.

July 4, 1956. Asleep on the the train journey back home to Memphis.

July 4, 1956. 1034 Auburn Drive, Memphis. Elvis behind his home.

July 4, 1956. 1034 Auburn Drive, Memphis. Elvis liked horseplay — he loved physical activity. Here he is with his cousins Billy Smith (behind) and Bobby Smith (foreground) horsing around in a half-filled swimming pool at home. The valve was broken so they couldn't fill it all.

July 4, 1956. 1034 Auburn Drive, Memphis. This is [Elvis at home] with his cousin, Billy Smith (left), who’s still alive, and Bobby Smith (right), who committed suicide. He took rat poison.

July 4, 1956. 1034 Auburn Drive, Memphis. With Barbara Hearn listening to playback. Elvis is testing the three songs that he recorded a few days earlier. He had gotten a quick acetate cut, which would play for about 50 takes before it disintegrated. He tried to dance with her, but he was all sweated up, and she said "after you're showered up." He wanted to know if the music was danceable — she said no.

July 4, 1956. Russwood Park, Memphis. He told the audience, "Tonight you will see the real Elvis Presley," then proceeded to gyrate all over the stage to the delight of the 14,000 crowd.

July 4, 1956. Russwood Park, Memphis. Elvis is entering the stadium escorted by the local police and fire department, but also by the Shore Police of the Navy. This was Elvis' first charitable benefit show, with proceeds going to The Cynthia Milk Fund and the Variety Club’s Home for Convalescent Children.

(Images: ©Alfred Wertheimer)


  1. Good memories of a great performer. Shame he ever was involved with Parker.

    1. Parker wasn't all bad, don't believe everythng you hear




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