It was a remarkable incident, coming at the end of a spring and summer that had been full of remarkable incidents. On July 4, 1956, twenty-one-year-old Elvis Presley was on the last leg of a twenty-seven-hour train ride that was taking him home to Memphis. Over the past six months, the young entertainer had been on a whirlwind as his new record label, RCA, paraded him around New York and introduced him to the New York media. On January 28, he appeared live on television for the first time, on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show; two days later, he made his first recordings for RCA, including “Heartbreak Hotel”; then there were five more appearances on Stage Show. In April and early May he performed live on the Milton Berle Show, and on July 1, the Steve Allen Show. Then it was back to the RCA studios to record “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Elvis would soon be a superstar.
As the train approached the Memphis city limits, Elvis suddenly asked the conductor if the train could stop and let him off at White Station, a small community on the eastern fringes of the city. From White Station, he explained, he’d be just a short walk away from his house at 1034 Audubon Drive. The conductor, who probably had better things to do than to indulge this citified country boy with his ridiculous pompadour, nevertheless asked the engineer to stop the train. Carrying only the acetate cuts of the recordings he had made in New York, Elvis jumped out of the passenger car and walked down a grassy knoll to a sidewalk. “Where’s 1034 Audubon Drive?” he asked a woman who happened to be walking along the sidewalk at just that moment. She pointed the way. Still largely unknown to the public for probably the last time in his life, Elvis waved goodbye to the conductor and, all by his lonesome, started walking—walking home.
The story I’ve just told is captured in a series of five photographs by Alfred Wertheimer, photographs that, along with sixty-seven others by the same photographer, were on display in a Smithsonian exhibition in 2010 titled Elvis at 21. Wertheimer, who had been hired by RCA to photograph its new rising star, followed Elvis around that spring and summer, taking pictures of the young man from Memphis as he performed onstage in television studios, ate in greasy spoons and tablecloth restaurants, and smooched well-dressed girls in dimly lit hallways. Elvis, Wertheimer later recalled, was the perfect subject: “He permitted closeness and he made the girls cry.”
Wertheimer’s photographs, which can be seen on the photographer’s website, have been reproduced in a handsome book that was published in conjunction with the Smithsonian exhibition. Titled Elvis 1956, the book interleaves Wertheimer’s photographs with his brief observations on Elvis and the experience of photographing the future King of Rock and Roll in such intimate and unguarded moments. Wertheimer, who was only twenty-six at the time and had never heard of Elvis before taking on the RCA assignment, had virtually unlimited access to the entertainer; the result was an important portfolio of American images that captured a global icon in the making.
Elvis 1956 begins with three all-too-short essays that set the stage for the photographs. Chris Murray, founder and director of Govinda Gallery in Washington, compares the sensation Elvis made in 1956 with the sensation made by the invention of photography: things were never the same again, and both were received with fear and excitement. E. Warren Perry Jr., who grew up in Memphis and is a writer and researcher for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, draws on Joseph Campbell to compare Elvis to Odysseus—his spring and summer in New York corresponding to the Greek hero’s wanderings after the Trojan War—and to suggest that the pattern of Elvis’s life resembled that of a myth. Amy Henderson, a cultural historian at the National Portrait Gallery, explores the “flashpoint of fame,” the precise moment when Elvis went from someone who could sit alone at a lunch counter to someone who needed a cordon of police officers to get from a car to a stage. Together, the essays and photographs present an America on the verge of great changes: the postwar civil rights movement was gathering steam; television would soon replace radio as the broadcast medium of choice; and a new form of popular music, typified by the charismatic and hip-shaking Elvis Presley, was bursting onto the scene.
The night Elvis returned to Memphis from New York, he gave a charity concert at Russwood Park, a wooden baseball stadium that stood in the 900 block of Madison Avenue. Three nights before, on the Steve Allen Show, Elvis’s performance had been carefully managed. But on the night of July 4, back in Memphis, Elvis was determined that things would be different. “Tonight,” he announced to the 14,000 fans who had gathered for the show, “you’re going to see what the real Elvis Presley is all about.” Happy are we who have Alfred Wertheimer’s photographs as a visual testimony to that night and to the real Elvis Aaron Presley.
Elvis 1956, which won ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year award, is published by Welcome Books of New York and may be ordered for $29.95 from the publisher’s website.