When 21 Was Still Young Enough to be a Teen Idol: Pre-Fame Elvis Presley

Alfred Wertheimer had never heard of Elvis Presley in 1956 when he accepted a job to photograph the singer from Memphis. Hired to do publicity shots for Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show, in New York, Wertheimer eventually spent seven days with Elvis. In hotel rooms, train compartments, and recording studios, he photographed the last flash of the singer’s life before superstardom. 30 days later, Elvis was the most famous man in the world. In 3,800 black-and-white pictures, Wertheimer had recorded Elvis with a level of intimacy that the public would never see again.

You see Elvis in his pre-Graceland living room, reclining without his shirt on, playing his records to impress an old girlfriend. She doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself though, perhaps disappointed she’s all dressed up and he’s not. He’s more successful with another girl, playing tongue tango backstage. Then he sits alone at a segregated lunch counter, equally between black and white sections and uncaring about the separation.
56 of Wertheimer’s photographs are being presented in a new traveling exhibition, “Elvis at 21,” curated by Chris Murray. I asked Murray how Elvis anticipated his fame. He recalled that once while browsing in a train station shop, Elvis signed a magazine with a photo of himself—a magazine that he had not purchased. He gave it to the cashier. She, like Wertheimer before, didn’t know who Elvis was, but Elvis knew some day the photo and his signature would matter.

“Elvis at 21” is now at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, located at 800 West Olympic Boulevard. It will travel to 11 other locations, including the Boca Raton Museum of Art in April, and the National Portrait Gallery in late October.