Backstage with the Young King

In 1956, photographer Alfred Wertheimer received a new assignment from an RCA Victor publicist: Shoot a young singer from Mississippi named Elvis Presley. “Elvis who?” Wertheimer responded. He spent the next two weeks shadowing the rising twenty-one-year-old, taking more than 2,500 photographs and getting the distinct sense that this charismatic Southern boy who grew up singing in church might be more than just a flash in the pan.

Elvis and the Birth of Rock and Roll, a hefty new photo book, presents more than 200 of those early images. The collection reveals candid personal moments—reading a newspaper or stealing a kiss backstage—of a man about to be elevated to god-like status. To Wertheimer, who died last October, the assignment was about capturing talent on the brink, and fading into the background as an artist crafted his identity for an adoring—and growing—audience. “Most of the time, Elvis never even knew I was taking his picture,” Wertheimer writes in the book’s introduction. “He was laser-focused on whatever he did, so I would wait until he was engaged—and he was always immersed in being Elvis.”

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