"Elvis 1956" first caught my eye high up on a bookshelf beside the newsroom at HuffPost in New York. I have no abiding interest in Elvis, yet made a bee line for it when asked to wait for a few moments. Something about it compelled me to cross the foyer, take it down and begin to look it over. Just then my editor friend got off work and it was time to go. That compelling something must have been written across my face because she told me the books there were all promos and I could keep it. There turned out to be several somethings.
I am an artist not a photographer or musician, but to me these early photographs of a barely-legal Elvis struck chords as powerful as any in his music. Twenty-one years old, about to step into fame--and infamy--he knew what was coming. These guileless images catch it in his peerless baby face, the style he dresses himself in and throughout his body language. It jumps out at me, a sculptor of the human figure: his preternatural calm, his precise focus, his certainty. In every glimpse he's got natural game, whether performing, rehearsing, resting, standing in line for a train, flirting with a waitress, or then making a woman of her later the same day. Despite his pimped outfits, his young presence causes little fuss in casual and public settings. But complete deference to him rules amidst the pros he's photographed among, from Steve Allen rehearsing him for an appearance on the Steve Allen Show to all hands backstage, and back home...with the exception of his dad, mom and former high school sweetheart, that is.
The story behind these earthy photographs by freelance photographer Alfred Wertheimer is another stunning something about this book. Wertheimer had begun his professional career just the year before. RCA hired him to shoot publicity for their hot new young talent coming to New York for a recording session and that television appearance with Allen. Afterward, Wertheimer on his own initiative followed Elvis home to Memphis. He was moved to chronicle Elvis brown bagging it in a station on the humble cross country train ride, hoping off short of the city to walk to his parents' house, and then later escorted by police to a riotous homecoming concert in Russwood Park. And Elvis left him free to shoot at will, if he noticed the photographer at all. Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' manager, closed the curtain on anyone ever after getting that kind of unguarded access to his budding superstar. In this unique visual record, Wertheimer's honest intuition and drive prove prescient as his sharp eye.
This extraordinary book touched me on a personal level as well. The photographs so intrigued me that I took to reading the text, introduction through credits. At end it dawned that a former neighbor of mine in Key West, Chris Murray, founder and director of Govinda Gallery in Washington, D.C., wrote the gripping introduction. Murray collaborated with the Smithsonian on a nationally traveling exhibition in celebration of the 75th anniversary of Elvis' birth, opening January 8 at the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles (through March 28), for which this book serves as exhibition catalogue.
All of the photos and captions below are from "Elvis 1956," published by Welcome Books, Photos and text 2009 © Alfred Wertheimer, www.welcomebooks.com/elvis1956