Obit of the Day: Capturing the Early Elvis
When Alfred Wertheimer received the call from RCA to take some photographs of a young Memphis singer his first response was “Elvis who?” But after spending several years with the rock and roll pioneer, Mr. Wertheimer knew the performer would be a star noting that his performances made girls in the audience cry, “Now, any time you can find a performer, even today, who could make the girls cry, real tears streaming down their face and the mascara…bet on that person.”
Mr. Wertheimer, who was born in Germany and fled with his family as the Nazis came to power, was only 26 when he took the assignment with Elvis. Only 21 himself, Mr. Presley allowed the photographer access that no one else would have after he became a true star. Mr. Wertheimer praised Elvis as a subject who appeared to act no differently whether or not a camera was present. Mr. Wertheimer had unprecedented access to the singer behind stage, at home, and in quiet moments alone. One of the most famous photos from the sessions was a brief encounter Elvis had with a fan backstage in Richmond, Va. In a moment Mr. Wertheimer described as lasting “one-tenth of a second” he caught the couple initiating a kiss, an image that is iconic among Elvis fans.
After his original RCA assignment was up, Mr. Wertheimer paid his own way and continued taking pictures of the singer, including some beautiful color photos taken while Elvis was recording “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” in New York in 1956.
For all the incredible photographs taken by Mr. Wertheimer, his collection was largely ignored, until after the death of Mr. Presley in 1977. At that point the images were in high demand, and “the phone never stopped ringing” according to Mr. Wertheimer. In 2010 the photos were featured in a touring exhibition that began at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles titled Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer.
Alfred Wertheimer, who later worked as a cameraman on the Woodstock documentary, died on October 19, 2014 at the age of 84.
Images from top to bottom, all copyright of Alfred Wertheimer:
- Elvis on a train home to Memphis after his appearance on The Steve Allen Show, July 1956. Courtesy Vanity Fair
- The Kiss: In the privacy of the narrow hallway under the fire stairs of the Mosque Theater in June 1956, while other performers are on stage before 3,000 fans, Elvis is concentrating on his date for the day. Courtesy Govinda Gallery via LA Times
- Elvis Presley during a New York session, 1956, where he recorded “Don’t Be Cruel’ and “Hound Dog” Courtesy of brainpickings.org
- Elvis in a mirror, 1956 Courtesy of eloftalmologocurioso.com
- Elvis doing his hair before a show, 1956 Courtesy of photokunst.com via The Daily Telegraph