Gary James' Interview With Elvis Presley's Photographer
In the history of Rock 'n' Roll, Alfred Wertheimer enjoyed a rather unique position. He photographed Elvis Presley in 1956 when Elvis was 21 years old. Those photos can be seen in the new book Elvis At 21: New York To Memphis. (Insight Editions)
We talked to Mr. Wertheimer about his experience in 1956 of photographing the one and only Elvis Presley.
Q - You've got a nice book here Mr. Wertheimer.
A - Oh, you saw the book? Well, that's good. I'm very proud of the book. I think Raoul Goff did a wonderful job. He's the publisher of Insight Editions. He personally went over to Hong Kong for about three weeks to supervise the production. So, that was nice of him. He has a good sense of the photograph. I think besides my photographs, it was due largely to the fact that he used Quad Tone printing, which involves four different plates of various blacks and silver. You don't get it with one plate or even duotone. So, he used whatever tricks printers can use to get as close to photographic reproduction as possible.
Q - What kind of a market is he trying to reach by putting out a Limited Edition of this book?
A - That's an aside. The basic book is the $65.00 retail list price, which seems to be going in the market place for about $41.00 at Amazon and $52.00 at Barnes And Noble. I sell the book myself. I have a few hundred here which I sell for $50.00. I autograph it for people. So, the publisher's list price is never quite right, but it's some place to start with. Now, the Limited Edition is a special book. It's similar, but has approximately 38 additional pages. There's so much confusion when you read these things on these different web sites. But, the basic book has, to the best of my knowledge, 250 pages, not 225 pages as they advertise. Then on top of that in the Limited Edition you have approximately 35 - 36 additional photographs that include perhaps 20 color images of Elvis in recording sessions, Elvis down in Richardson, Virginia, Elvis on the train. So, those are included in the Special Edition. You also get a smaller book which is entitled Elvis Ships Out. That's the story of him leaving for Germany on September 22nd, 1958, where he took the troop ship. He and 6,000 other soldiers and dependent Americans and civilians left that day from the Brooklyn port of embarkation. After he held forth in a press conference, supervised by this general in civilian clothes who would never leave his side because he was basking in the publicity Elvis was getting now from about 250 media people, television and magazines and still photography. They were also using Elvis at the time for recruitment, so you also had these recruiting posters behind Elvis holding forth at the press conference which lasted approximately an hour. Then eventually Elvis did get onto the boat. See, what always interests me is the process. It's not the fact that he left for Germany and then was gone for a year and a half or so and then he met Priscilla over there as a 14 year old kid. What's interesting is, the story goes out that Elvis is being treated no different than any other soldier. And of course, Colonel Parker is there that day, his manager, and Elvis is holding forth at this press conference. He's now got a crew cut and his sideburns have been shaved off. He has these five other people in Class A uniform waiting for him with their duffle bags. In the meantime there's 6,000 soldiers that are sort of herded onto the ship on a lower level. If you have a 6 story high ship, at the 6th story you have Elvis holding forth and on this 3rd floor you have this gang plank where all these people are just going on board with their duffel bags. In the mean time, the Colonel has handed out music to the music director, which included all of Elvis' songs, "Tutti Frutti", "Hound Dog", "Don't Be Cruel" and most of his popular songs at the time. Ultimately when the ship was ready to pull out of the harbor and being pushed by the tug boats, Elvis opened up his box that the Colonel had given him, which included a lot of 2 X 3 photos of Elvis signed, facsimile signature which he then tossed off the side of the boat onto the pier and it would come fluttering down to the strains of his own music. Now that's the first time in history of the American Army that a troop ship has left home base where they didn't play John Philip Sousa marches. They played these personal songs of an entertainer. But, they kept saying Elvis is being treated no different than any other soldier. So, ultimately when he did go onto the ship at the gang plank on the 6th floor level, they had these other 5 young soldiers pick up their duffel bag and Elvis was sort of in the midst of them. He would carry his duffel bag onto the ship and there'd be a photographer. In those days, you had those press photographers, who only had one shot and then they had to kind of move the slide and get ready for the next shot. Somebody would say "Could we have one more?" and the public information officer would get all of the fellas with the duffel bags to go back onto the land side. Some of the smaller guys would drop the duffel bags and now they had to re-organize themselves. Eventually, the second time they made it and the photographers got their second shot. In the mean time I got about 6 shots because I was operating with a Nikon camera which was much faster. One of my shots turned out extremely good, where the others are so, so. At any rate, there he is on the ship and he's holding forth. Actually the Colonel managed to get on the ship. I don't know how he did that. I have pictures of Elvis having his arms around the Colonel's shoulder. The Colonel looks like a young man, the boy. They reversed roles. Elvis is taking the role of the father figure and the Colonel is like the son who's being left behind somehow while Elvis does his duty. Of course, nobody knew at the time that the secret the Colonel was having, that he never told the public until later on. Do you know what that secret was?
Q - That he wasn't a citizen of the United States?
A - That's right He was an illegal immigrant.
Q - That's why he never went for any tax breaks for Elvis, because he was afraid the Internal Revenue would start investigating. Elvis always paid the full amount.
A - Well, that's another factor. I don't think the Colonel particularly cared about Elvis' tax status. The more Elvis paid, the more he needed the Colonel to get more jobs. So, the Colonel didn't mess with Elvis' private tax things. That was really up to Elvis to get his own accountant and worry about his taxes. His attitude was 'I can always do another concert. I'll be patriotic and pay my 90 per cent.' The Colonel was an illegal immigrant under mysterious circumstances, although they claimed that he was in the U.S. Army at one point and that he was stationed in Hawaii and they had some pictures of him there.
Q - And he wasn't a real Colonel.
A - The other story is he was part of the Parker Pony Circus and he took the name of Parker. Then some others claimed that the Colonel, who was in charge of his group in the Army in Hawaii, was named Parker and he just took that name. He never admitted or denied anything. You never quite knew. Of course he was getting the title of Colonel from the governor of Mississippi for some favor he did, I guess for the governor.
Q - Did you know he was a big time gambler?
A - Oh, yeah. Later on.
Q - You were in the studio when Elvis was recording "Hound Dog". As you were photographing him, did it cross your mind you were photographing the next big star in Pop music?
A - Well, that was not mine to reason one way or another. My job was to basically come up with some good photographs for that day's event, which I would do anyway. I don't shoot any better because I think someone is going to become great. I just shoot because the visual framing and the visual images excite me.
Q - I'm not talking from a professional photographer's point of view. I'm talking personally.
A - Well, I'm not a professional musician. All I knew was that I was dealing with a charismatic person who got people excited, who was very intense in doing his music. Personally, he didn't have the Colonel there. He didn't have Tom Diskin there. You had Steve Shoales there, but he was the A&R man, but he didn't butt in very much. He was basically going back and forth between the engineering room and the studio which had a door between it. Elvis was the one who decided ultimately, is it a take? Isn't it a take? Do we do it again? When Elvis said "it's a take", all the musicians kind of cheered and pepped up and they relaxed and told jokes. Then they got ready for the next song. I was going more by what I thought was happening with the young girls, not so much as what was going on in the session. I was covering people like Paul Anka and Dion And The Belmonts and Annette Funicello and some potential RCA singers. None of them made the girls cry. OK? To me, this was a clue. Elvis, in the darkness of a theatre made the girls cry. I mean, to me this was fantastic. I've seen them cheer and yell and scream and jump and carry on, but to cry? That was a very intimate, personal statement of their reaction to his singing. I said this guys gotta be a winner because it's the girls who buy the fan magazines. It's the girls who spend all their money on buying these trinkets and souvenir items. They certainly were in his corner. These were girls who were basically in the 13 to 17 year old category. I didn't see too many young men who were carrying on. There were always a few policemen in the area where he was singing. They would sort of be waiting to try and keep the peace, as if the peace had to be kept. But, the gals sort of let the tears flow uncontrollably and hug each other and let the mascara come off their eyes. Elvis would be carrying on and getting down on one knee and singing with his whole body. The more he let it hang out as Trini Lopez said, the more they would let it hang out. It was just like a little visual orgy they were having together and nobody quite understood what was going on because the times were fairly repressive, during the Eisenhower administration. Here this fella comes along and sort of carries on and makes his constituents feel good. They just felt very good after he got through. It was like a religious sexual experience.
Q - Now, what was R.C.A. going to do with the photos you were taking? Were they going to use them as an album cover?
A - Well, my relationship with R.C.A. was Anne Fulchino, who had come from Columbia Records back in November, December of '55 to work for R.C.A. Victor in the Pop Division to try and set up a photo file for the purposes of publicity, so that if a newspaper called about one performer or another, she'd have something she could put in her press kit that they could publish. Her job was to generate publicity. My job was to try and make a living at photography. After I'd gotten out of the Army in 1954, as a draftee; I was in Germany for awhile, I came back and worked for a fashion photographer for a half a year, then I decided I wasn't very good at fashion. I was anxious to get out and be a journalist one might say with a camera and tell stories. I showed my work to Anne who liked it very much. She liked my style. She didn't have much of a budget. My overhead was very low at the time. I was sharing a studio on 3rd Avenue in New York with about 5 or 6 other magazine photographers. Paul Shutzer, who was my friend and sharing the studio with me, introduced me to Anne. Unfortunately, Paul got himself killed in the Six Day Egyptian - Israeli War, working for Life Magazine. He got shot in the head. So, that was the end of our friendship. But, in the meantime, Anne occasionally called me to do these recording sessions and paid me just about enough to pay for the film and the contact sheets and the expense of going down and maybe even getting a sandwich. But, I certainly didn't make much of a profit from R.C.A. They were very, I would say frugal, in other words, cheap. The reason I did it was because she gave me access to their performers and I had the right to take my photographs, since I owned the negatives and bring the photographs to other venues such as TV Guide. I sold one picture to TV Guide and made 5 times what Anne paid me, which was good. It kept me going, paid the rent and without her I would never have gotten that cover shot because I would never have been in the recording session. So, we had something worked out that worked out for them and worked out for me. My job was basically to give her like a dozen prints that she might be able to use on the back of album jackets and also could use in press kits for handouts for newspaper reproduction. Everything else was my property. Anything to do with a book or magazines or album covers, they would have to come to me and I would have to negotiate with the art department. In those days, an album cover usually brought in about $300, a magazine cover $250. So, that was an incentive for me to go out and hustle the photographs which fit into her wanting publicity.
Q - I'm surprised Colonel Parker didn't have his hand out in what you were doing.
A - Colonel Parker was not involved in the recording aspect of Elvis' career, except he was instrumental in signing the contract. Colonel Parker really got his power later on. Here I am, it's March of 1956 and the Colonel isn't even the full manager yet. There's a guy called Neal who is the manager 'til April of '56 for Elvis. Then the Colonel becomes the full manager in April. That was a month after I had already photographed him on the Tommy / Jimmy Dorsey Show, which was on the 17th of March, where Elvis didn't even have one Gold Record yet. He was basically a well-known regional singer who was getting a break I would say from Jackie Gleason, if anybody deserves the title of having discovered Elvis for the national public. Jackie Gleason should have gotten that, not Ed Sullivan. Jackie Gleason was a producer on a show called Stage Show. It was a variety show hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Jackie Gleason was at one time a professional trumpet player and then he became an actor, comedian and also he was a producer of this particular show called Stage Show. It was hosted by two brothers who were both orchestra conductors, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Elvis was booked for two appearances on that show starting in around January 28th of '56 and then another one in early February. He caused such a fuss among the public that I guess it was decided by Gleason to have him on for four more appearances. Well, I caught up with him on his 5th appearance on that show on March 17th. The way that came about is, I was working in the darkroom in the studio I shared and I was doing some printing for a pharmaceutical ad. Somebody said "Al, pick up the phone, Anne's on the line." So, Anne said "What are you doing on the 17th?" I said "Well, what's up?" I figured it was another recording session. She said "No, it's not a recording session. I want you to cover the Tommy / Jimmy Dorsey Stage Show, a variety show produced by Jackie Gleason." So, in my enthusiasm in those days, I said "Oh, that's wonderful." Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller. These are my kind of musicians. If it isn't Vivaldi or Mozart, I love the Big Band sound. She said "No, That's not what I want you to cover. I'd like you to cover Elvis Presley." Then there's a moment of silence and I said "Elvis Who?" She said "Elvis Presley." I had never heard of a Presley, let alone Elvis Presley. So I said "Well, if that's what you want, I'll be glad to do it. What does he do?" She said "He sings. We signed him up just a few months earlier, back in November or thereabouts of '55. See if you can come up with some nice photographs I can use." So, I said "Well, I'll do my best." So, the 17th came and I arrived at the theatre, entered the stage entrance. I met Anne. She's back there talking to some publicist and she takes me to a room where I find this young man with his feet up on the table. He's got argyle socks on. He's talking to a middle-age man who looks like a salesman. It turned out that he was a salesman. He happened to be a ring salesman. It seems that Elvis, previously on one of his earlier shows, had ordered a ring from this man and he was delivering it that day just as I walk into the room. Anne basically says to him "Elvis, I'd like you to meet Al Wertheimer, a photographer. He'll be taking some pictures of you. I asked him to do it. Could you co-operate?" Elvis kind of grunted and said "Sure, yeah. Why not?" He was too concerned about this ring that was now on his finger. I then assumed my role as the fly on the wall, since I was basically practicing for a good deal of the time doing available light photography, or as I re-phrased it later on when I got a little bit more experience, available darkness photography, where you don't use supplemental lights. So, I accepted the lighting that there was and I started to snap away at the salesman and Elvis. It turns out that the ring was a horse shoe shaped ring with diamonds around the horse shoe and there was a horse's head going between one side of the ring and the other side. That was his good luck ring. So meantime, the salesman is trying to convince him that he should buy another ring, but he didn't do it that day. Then, they went out into the hall and Elvis said good-bye. Then he wandered around backstage. He'd check out the catering table where they had some sandwiches and food left. Since everybody had access to it, there was very little left. He'd pick up a piece of celery or piece of bread, chomp on it. Not much there. So, then he was looking around for things to do. Then he'd be getting some advice from the William Morris agents who booked the show. They had him in a corner, telling him what to do and Elvis for some reason was listening in a dutifully way. He didn't object. Essentially what he did was quietly listened. Then when he got on stage, he did what he wanted. He just ignored whatever advice...which generally was, look don't be too extreme, don't go carrying on and gyrating all over the stage. Be reasonable. Well, Elvis in performance was not reasonable. That's perhaps why he was so liked by his fans. They didn't like the reasonable Elvis. They wanted him to be an entertainer and to be an entertainer you had to be slightly unreasonable.
Q - You have a photo in your book of the C.B.S. stage entrance where quite a few people have gathered, waiting for Elvis. Where was the security?
A - Did you say security for Elvis Presley?
Q - Yes.
A - Why would you have security for somebody who hasn't even got a gold record? The man was not that famous. As it is, I never heard of him. There was a guard at the stage door. The biggest worry that day was the cold weather. It was freezing. Everybody was bundled up. It was in March. Somebody came out and put a coat over him. I guess they wanted him to sing before he caught pneumonia. He enjoyed the feel of being with fans. Now, how the fans knew he was going to be there, whether Anne Fulchino had anything to do with it by alerting fan clubs or whether they read about it in the newspaper...I don't know. But, he loved being with girls. I mean, that sort of made his day. Later on, I found out whether the girls were 8 years old or 18 or 65 or 70, he just liked women. They calmed him down. He felt they were willing to give him something where the guys were always asking for him to give them something. It's uncanny. I remember when we were in Richmond, you had this young girl who was maybe 8 years old and he was being interviewed by a reporter. He's sitting at these drums between two performances, an early and an evening one. She sort of comes up, picks up a drum stick. He must've known her. I think she was the daughter of one of the other musicians that was performing that day. While he was tapping away and giving answers, she was tapping away on the rim of one of the drum heads. He was just so relaxed and pleased to have that. When the reporter was finished he turns to her and says "Honey, you wanna learn how to play the piano?" She says "Yeah." They go down into the orchestra pit and Elvis leans back and puts his shoes up on the keyboard and starts banging away, while she's doing "Chopsticks" with two fingers, sitting on the same bench. He's laughing and laughing. He thinks this is very funny... had a strange sense of humor. Then he would go and just pick up an accordion that happened to be laying around and start playing it. He used instruments as an excuse not to talk to people. For instance, there was a time on the Steve Allen rehearsal, where we're in this Manhattan rehearsal studio and he was he first to arrive with his entourage, Junior Smith, his sidekick, gopher and the Colonel. He's waiting for Steve Allen and his people to arrive. So, he goes to a piano in the corner and he starts playing Gospel music. And, he's singing to himself, playing away on the piano. Next thing you know the William Morris guys come around there. They're the ones who were doing all the bookings for the television shows. Then, the Colonel comes by. Then Junior Smith comes by. Before you know it, some of the assistants come by. So, he has everybody gravitate around where he was holding forth, except his thoughts I suppose, he never did explain this to me, were, as long as he's playing an instrument, people don't ask him silly questions, and he can do something that he likes.
Q - Whatever happened to this former girlfriend of Elvis' - Barbara Hearn? She's in the white dress with the black polka dots.
A - I think she was one of the winners of some contest in Tennessee. She was his high school sweetheart. She also won a beauty contest back then. Now, whether that was a local Memphis contest or a Tennessee contest, I don't know. She's still alive. As a matter of fact, she married an Air Force guy. I think she lives in Chicago. I had a show at Govinda Gallery, a one man show, in Washington, D.C. recently when the book came out. We were selling books and having a gallery show. One of her friends arrived at the gallery and mentioned to the gallery owner, whose name is Chris Murray, the editor on the book that Barbara was surprised she's still in Elvis' circle and that my photographs have sort of kept her alive as to what she was like then. Later on, she really didn't tie in with Elvis. She got married to some reasonable guy in the Air Force and now she's living somewhere out in Chicago. But, she's sort of happy she was recorded and living in my images.
Q - Now, you were at the home of Elvis and met his mother.
A - I was at the home, prior to Graceland. I was at the Audobon Drive home. This was a home he had only for about a year. As a matter of fact, the swimming pool was still under repair. They never did get it to work properly. The reason it's only half full is, the valves on the swimming pool weren't working, so they had to try and fill up the pool with a garden hose from the kitchen sink, if you can imagine. It took about 6 hours just to get about 3 feet worth of water at the deep end of the pool, which really worked out very well for me, because I was able to borrow a bathing suit, either Elvis' or Vernon's from the mother, Gladys and I was then able to go into the pool with my camera at water level and get some very intimate water shots that I wouldn't have gotten had the pool been full. I would've been out on the edge. I wouldn't have had that low angle view. Things always work out for the best if you don't fight them.
Q - What kind of woman was Gladys Presley?
A - As best as I could make out, she was a very doting kind of mother. She was kind of giving advice to her son, whether he takes it or not is another matter. He also kisses ladies in the house, in front of her, so he doesn't seem to be shy of showing affections to others. He kisses her on the cheek when she gives him a fresh pair of jockey underwear. So, she gets her payment by getting a kiss.