Access all areas . . . polaroid memories of Elvis
This week, 49 years ago, Elvis Presley performed Hound Dog, and the new rock 'n' roll was born.
Paul McNamee talks to Al Wertheimer, a photographer who was given exclusive access to The King during that first, heady flush of fame. Despite the passage of time, Wertheimer's memories of Elvis remain vivid - whether of his affection for women of all ages, or the scandal he excited with his sensual approach to music.
On June 5, 1956 Elvis performed Hound Dog on Milton Berle's TV show on the US network.
The young star, just a little over 21, caused national outrage. His gyrating hips were "suggestive and vulgar . . . and should be confined to dives and bordellos," screamed the New York Daily News.
It was the performance that catapulted him into the major league and changed rock and roll forever. Over the following months, he would become the most sought-after performer in the world.
One young photographer, Al Wertheimer, was given incredible access over this period - and was able to capture Elvis at down times, or off-guard moments, and build up an iconic collection of photographs rivalling any taken of the King.
Nowadays, with rock stars being more protected and shielded than international politicians, it wouldn't happen. But for those golden months, Al Wertheimer was witness to the birth of a legend. As Elvis fans celebrate what would have been his 70th birthday this year, Al's part in the story of Presley is one worth revisiting.
When he first met Elvis, Wertheimer wasn't sure he would get very much at all. He was introduced to him on St Patrick's Day 1956, at the recording of another TV show in New York.
"I was taken down to the dressing room at CBS Studio 50 by Ann Fulchino, from RCA Records. She hired me for the job, just for a few publicity shots, because RCA thought he might be a little successful," he says.
"Elvis was getting ready to go on 'Stage Show', giving the final touch to his hair. He had his feet up on the table and there was a non-descript chubby man sitting near him showing him a line of jewellery.
"So Ann tells him, this is Al Wertheimer, he's going to take some pictures. And Elvis kind of grunts and says sure, okay, fine. He was focused on his jewellery."
Though it doesn't seem like much of a reception, Al was immediately in with Elvis' coterie. Within weeks of that first meeting, he was criss-crossing the US with the young star, building up his bank of pictures.
Wertheimer says that at the time, he was a classical music buff, more into Mozart and Beethoven than rock and roll. He was also just working for costs - quite difficult when you are 25 years old and trying to make it as a photographer. But there was something different to Elvis that kept him coming back.
"I wasn't exactly Nostradamus but I did sense excitement," he says. "I was excited - actually shaking in some cases. And he made the girls cry - it was almost a sexual experience for them.
"I sensed something was going on when he played a show in Richmond, Virginia (June 30, 1956). It was a pretty straight Southern town and you had a lot of young girls there, maybe 4,000 in the theatre. The girls would be hugging each other in the darkness and would cry."
Elvis always looks incredible, otherworldly in Wertheimer's pictures - whether he's reading a newspaper while waiting for a cab, or washing his hands during one of his many train journeys, (Elvis hated to fly and travelled the country on train, or in his Cadillacs). He looks natural and keeps nothing hidden.
The drugs and the mid-60s Hollywood dross conveyor belt had yet to suck out his soul. Wertheimer admits that much of the time, he was lucky, simply because he was in the right place at the right time.
"You're always looking for some personality who is going to give you pictures that are going to last and be in fan magazines and national magazines - especially if you have access. And one of the things Ann permitted me to do was to have access."
Though decades have passed, Wertheimer still talks about Elvis with a lot of affection. He was naïve, he says, impulsive and instinctive.
He was shy at heart, but he loved to be near women "whether (they were) eight years old, or 65 years," smiling and charming them.
He last saw Elvis in September 1958, when the star sailed from the Brooklyn port of embarkations to start his national service in Germany.
For the next 19 years, despite the bank of pictures he held, Wertheimer didn't get one phone call about them.
Then, on August 16, 1977, the day Elvis died, Time Magazine rang and asked if he had anything they could use. "And the phone hasn't really stopped ringing in the last 30 years," he says.
"I owe him a lot."
(Source: Belfast Telegraph, 3 June 2005)