As an aspiring freelance photographer fresh out of the Army, Al Wertheimer was pretty jazzed one late-winter day back in 1956. A record company publicist had phoned and asked him to head down to a CBS-TV studio in New York City to take some shots during the variety show hosted by big-band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.
“I thought it would be great -- Tommy Dorsey was one of my heroes,” Wertheimer recalled last week from his home in New York. “I told her I loved all that stuff: Benny Goodman and the big bands. She said, ‘I don’t want you to cover Tommy Dorsey. I want you to cover Elvis Presley.’ There was a long silence, then I said, ‘Elvis who?’ ”
It was one of the last times that Wertheimer, or pretty much anyone, ever had to ask that question. The young singer born in Tupelo, Miss., shot to stardom on the TV exposure he got that day and over the next several months from appearances with the Dorseys, then on Milton Berle’s and Ed Sullivan’s variety shows.
Wertheimer ultimately shot hundreds of photos of the soon to be king of rock ‘n’ roll during the period before his manager, Col. Tom Parker, began to control the star’s public image.
A few dozen of those photos are the heart of “Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer,” the Smithsonian Institution-assembled traveling exhibition that has its first stop at the Grammy Museum. It will go up today and remain on display through March 28.
“Elvis isn’t studied in school,” the Grammy Museum’s executive director, Robert Santelli, said recently, “even though when you consider the postwar period and you think of the people who define us as Americans, you mention the Beatles, even though they were from England, you mention Bob Dylan, and the one who towers above both is Elvis. That has been forgotten, and that’s the goal of this exhibit.”
The Grammy Museum’s Presley exhibit also includes rare performance footage, interactive displays in which visitors can punch up samples of his recordings, two of his earliest guitars and several artifacts on loan from Presley’s Graceland mansion and museum in Memphis, Tenn.
But the focal point will be Wertheimer’s photos, first collected in the book “Elvis ’56: In the Beginning” published shortly after his death on Aug. 16, 1977. Wertheimer will be on hand at the museum tonight to discuss his work.
Wertheimer, who had studied photography in college and worked as a military photographer during part of his stint in the Army, captured Presley at the moment his fame ignited. In fact, one of his most celebrated shots shows the singer looking out across the audience during a homecoming concert in Memphis.
Wertheimer’s lens opened just as a fan at the back of the crowd snapped a flash, giving Wertheimer’s shot the look of a sun exploding above Presley’s head, symbolizing his emergence as a newly formed star.
“When I saw that photograph, it represented for me a wonderful piece of luck,” Wertheimer writes in “Elvis 1956,” the catalog that accompanies the traveling photo exhibition. “Instead of ruining the frame, it actually enhanced it.”
Wertheimer, who recently turned 80, exhibits a down-to-earth sense of self-deprecating humor in discussing his own life as well as the time he spent photographing Presley over a span of several months more than half a century ago.
He said the one photo people invariably ask about first is the shot he calls “The Kiss,” in which Elvis and an unidentified woman playfully embrace in a darkened hallway.
Wertheimer notes that it was taken shortly before Presley was due to step onstage in Richmond, Va. As part of the traveling entourage that also included guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana, Wertheimer looked around the dressing room where they were preparing for the show and noticed that Presley was missing.
The photographer went down a flight of stairs and spotted a young couple silhouetted against a window at the end of a corridor. It was Presley and a woman he’d met in a luncheonette earlier that day.
He moved in and began shooting, worrying that his subject might turn at any moment and tell him to get lost or even fire him. He soon realized he was never in any jeopardy.
“I don’t think they knew or cared who I was. Elvis was totally focused on her . . . I heard her say, ‘I’ll bet you can’t kiss me, Elvis,’ and she sticks out her tongue. He’s been trying to kiss her all day long. Then he decides to stick his tongue out just a bit . . . It actually lasted for about one-tenth of a second, but I’ve been talking about it ever since.”
That and many other Wertheimer photos have become iconic representations of the man whose death at age 42 left his millions of fans stunned and grieving. Strangely, Wertheimer’s shots remained practically uncirculated during Presley’s lifetime.
“For 19 years . . . I did not get one single phone call for an Elvis Presley photograph,” Wertheimer said. “But from that moment on, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing for 32 years.”