Where is the King? Photo books celebrating 150 years of the Art of Photography, published around the time that the Twentieth Century was on the way out, were noticeably lacking one photo – that of Elvis.
These books had photos of not quite a King – Edward 8th – always taken with his American wife. (The photographer Phillipe Halsman had them jumping – his trademark shot – in their stockinged feet). Then there was the not-quite-an-artist Andy Warhol who repeated his 15 minutes of ‘fame’, every fifteen minutes, for 15 years, usually with a photographer on hand.
But Elvis? Yes, there were nods to popular culture – Marilyn Monroe, for instance shot by Eve Arnold on the set of The Misfits. But Elvis? True, his manager ‘Colonel’ Parker tightened the reigns on unofficial exposure to Elvis by autumn 1956, including photographic exposure, but that can’t be the only explanation.
A New Star in the Galaxy
By the time RCA had released his first single with them in early 1956 ( having been signed from Sam Phillip’s Memphis Sun label) the King had not so much as arrived, as exploded in the North American white popular culture cosmos. White audiences had never seen sexual gyrations like it, let alone heard a style of music that blended country and rhythm and blues or was pure rhythm and blues, such as Hound Dog (released shortly before the Independence Day Memphis show, above).
Elvis’s incendiary sexuality caused kittens for the nationwide Steve Allen TV show and its sponsers. To neuter him for the white TV audience Elvis had to perform in a suit and and tails, with a basset hound wearing a top hat on a pedestal, as Elvis sang Hound Dog. The show had a higher rating than Ed Sullivan’s, who allegedly had said he would never have Elvis on his show. After being knocked off the Number One perch by Allen (and Elvis), he relented.
Two days later Elvis was back home in Memphis. When Elvis took the stage on July 4, 1956 at the Independence Day show at the Memphis Russwood Stadium he told the 14,000 people at the show: “I’m gonna show you what the real Elvis is tonight”. And he let rip.
The White Supremecists were incensed at his “Nigger music” (in Alabama they went on TV to protest at everything Elvis stood for, using the above phrase). In Florida a Judge banned Elvis from gyrating whilst in venues within the jurisdiction of the Judge.
The White Supremicists were right to be alarmed.
Two years after his death, the book Elvis ’56: In the Beginning was first published. It was packed with intimate photographs of Elvis taken by freelance photographer Alfred Wertheimer, with a commentary by him to the photographs, and the circumstances in which they were taken.
Alfred had been contacted by the Pop Division of RCA records in March 1956 to take some shots of Elvis. Liking what they saw from the first batch he was contracted to continue shadowing Elvis (with a Nikon S-2 camera) through to the July 4 concert in Memphis. In his forward Alfred reckons that by the time that Elvis appeared on of the Ed Sullivan show in September, 1956 the Colonel was having his way with increasingly isolating Elvis from the impromptu and un-authorised contacts Elvis had with the media.
Luckily, Elvis wasn’t always taking notice and the Colonel couldn’t be everywhere at once. Because of this, in addition to Alfred Wertheimer’s intimate photographs of Elvis we have the stunning photos of him, arms around some of the cream of the black r & b, ballad, and doo-wop scene, taken by Memphis based Ernest C. Withers backstage and on stage at an all black concert for an all black audience (segregation was still a reality in 1956) at the Memphis Ellis Auditorium, December 6 – 7.
It is unclear in The Memphis Blues Again, the collection of Ernest C. Withers photos of local and visiting black artists, from the early 1950’s through to the 1980’s, whether the photos taken of Elvis having a ball were published locally or nationally at the time. It is doubtful. The Colonel would certainly have spiked them. As Ernest C. Withers comments “Elvis was young and he was not chaperoned by Colonel Parker and them around black people…” but he goes on to say that was soon to change.
Ernest’s photos show Elvis on stage with Rufus Thomas, and backstage hanging out with Junior Parker, Bobby Blue Bland, Brook Benton, B.B.King, amongst others. Also on stage were The Moonglows, and Ray Charles.
That early December – just after Thanksgiving Day – was some week: December 4, two days before, Elvis dropped in on Sam Phillips cramped studio and caught Carl Perkins trying some ideas out, with Jerry Lee Lewis on piano. Always with an eye for publicity Sam Phillips rang up Johnny Cash and got him to drop by for a Photo Opportunity: The Million Dollar Quartet was what it became known as.
And yes, the White Supremecists were right to be outraged. Here was a white boy crossing the line, against a background of segregation in the South and the fight back from a concerted black Civil Rights movement. In less than a year – 1957 – there was a stand-off between the Arkansas State and the Federal Government over integration in the classroom. In September of 1957, to enforce de-segregation President Esienhower had to send in the US Army 101st Airborne Division to escort what were known as the Little Rock Nine black high school students into the High School. At the time, in the Billboard R & B charts the second only ever white singer was Number One: Jerry Lee Lewis with Whole Lot of Shaking Going On. (Four years later Jimi Hendrix did time in the 101st Airborne).
Jerry Lee had also crossed the line. In 1956, the year of these revealing photos, Elvis had been the first ever white artist to make it into the Billboard R & B charts, with Hound Dog, a hit amongst the black record buying public when released by Big Mama Thornton in 1953, written by the white duo Leiber and Stoller. In 1956 Elvis was in the R & B company of black artists including Ray Charles, Little Richard, Bill Doggett, Shirley & Lee and Fats Domino.
At every level Elvis was one of the most significant ‘phenomena’ in the United States, and his impact and influence, in music and/or style eventually permeated large parts of the Globe. He was and remains the undisputed King. And his picture in Photo Anthologies? Absent. Why? A Cultural Stitch-Up? Not consciously, but many of those assembling the photos wouldn’t even think to include him. There are, however, a lot of other significant musical Royalty and Aristocracy missing, who also had a huge impact on racial relations within the United States. Without them, a recent commentator has suggested, Barack Obama may never have made it to the Whitehouse.
King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl Hines… All missing. But there is a King Edward (not to be confused with the potato that was named after his grand-father), and there is a minor artist called Andy Warhol in these anthologies. Never mind. There is one photo book collection that does include a snap of Elvis, by Bill Ray. It isn’t an anthology of 150 years of photography, but it’s the one book of photographs Le Patron would have above all others: The Great Life Photographers.
Notes & Sources Elvis ’56 by Alfred Wertheimer is still in print, and sold in the US with a different cover to the UK 1994 edition. Also still in print is The Memphis Blues Again, by Ernest C. Withers. Ernest C. Withers was one of the foremost photographers of the Black Civil Rights movement, and his photographs of that movement have been, over the years, on exhibitions throughout the United States. The Great Life Photographers is also still in print. Many of the great photographers of the Twentieth Century such as Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Gordon Parks, Eugene Smith, Larry Burrows, are in it.
Note on photo cropping: No photographer likes someone else to crop their photos. Unfortunately the double page spreads of some of Arnold Wertheimer’s photos of his time with Elvis in Elvis ’56 were too large for Le Patron’s photo scanner. He humbly apologises and urges the interested to buy a copy of Elvis ’56 to see the uncropped originals.
Here is a link to a You Tube homage to Elvis and the Black American community: