In March of 1956, photojournalist Alfred Wertheimer accepted an assignment to photograph newly signed RCA Victor recording artist Elvis Presley. Although his career was still in its infancy, Elvis was quickly rising from a popular regional act into reaching the threshold of national and international fame. With his unorthodox fusion of country and rhythm and blues, Elvis’ career would eventually soar to unparalleled heights and crown the singer from Tupelo, Mississippi as the King of Rock and Roll.
Wertheimer’s assignment was originally supposed to last a single day but evolved to encompass the final months of Elvis’ relative obscurity before celebrity would change his life forever. The photographer was granted unrestricted access to document nearly every aspect of Elvis’ life including sitting at lunch counters unrecognized by fellow customers, inside the recording studio, and at the Presley family home in Memphis.
From his live performances to his recordings, Elvis was a perfectionist. These photographs help us remember what made Elvis the “King of Rock and Roll.” It wasn’t the white sequin suits, or gold sunglasses; it was achieved through raw talent and unequivocal grit.
The series of photographs appropriately titled Elvis at 21 is currently on traveling exhibition and features 56 large 37 x 42” pigment prints of Alfred Wertheimer’s work. “Elvis at 21” was developed collaboratively by the Govinda Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.
All photographs by Alfred Wertheimer.