Brain Pickings

It’s Only Music: Alfred Wertheimer’s Never-Before-Seen Photos of Elvis and the Birth of Rock and Roll

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The visual history of a shy boy in Memphis who came to rule the world and break a billion hearts.

In early 1956, an RCA publicist asked legendary photographer Alfred Wertheimer to shoot a 21-year-old up-and-coming singer in Memphis named Elvis. “Elvis who?” Wertheimer stared blankly — but he took the assignment. How bewildered he would have been to know that the young man before his camera, to whom he was given unlimited access and of whom he’d take nearly 3,000 photos that year, would go on to become a legend, a heartbreaker, a catalyst for a new kind of consumer culture, a king of pop culture — the King.

Wertheimer’s photographs from that year, along with a small selection of his rare 1958 pictures of the King being shipped off to an army base in Germany, are now gathered in Alfred Wertheimer: Elvis and the Birth of Rock and Roll (public library) — a lavish 400-page collector’s treasure from the fine folks of Taschen, produced in only 1,706 numbered copies, each signed by Wertheimer himself. Though Wertheimer created some of the most iconic images of Elvis, more than half the photographs in this magnificent volume have never before been revealed.

Accompanying each chapter is an original poster created exclusively for the book by Hatch Show Print, one of the world’s oldest letterpress print shops. Founded in 1879, Hatch created posters for the golden age of the circus and for world-famous touring entertainers and vaudeville performers in early 20th century. A pioneer in the distinctive woodblock images that shaped the look of country music in the 1940s and rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, Hatch created many of Elvis’s own early posters. Says Jim Sherraden, present-day manager of Hatch:

We’re using the same type that we used for Elvis over 50 years ago. I mean, the exact same type. Elvis stands alone as one of the true articulators of rock and roll, American rock and roll. It changed the South, it changed people, it changed the shop, and all this boy wanted to do was sing into a microphone.

Wertheimer recalls of Elvis:

Here I was with somebody who I didn’t know was going to become famous. But I did know two things: I knew that he was not shy — I mean, Elvis was shy in the sense that he was introverted, but he was not shy to the camera…and he made the girls cry.

“I don’t feel I’m doing anything wrong… I don’t see how any type of music can have any bad influence on people when it’s only music. I can’t figure it out… How would rock ‘n’ roll music make anyone rebel against their parents?” ~ Elvis Presley

Alfred Wertheimer: Elvis and the Birth of Rock and Roll is well worth the indulgence — or the trip to the public library — and makes a worthy addition to Taschen’s other gems, including the world’s best infographics, the visual history of magic, the best illustrations from 130 years of Brothers Grimm, Harry Benson’s luminous photos of The Beatles, the history of menu design, and New York’s illustrated jazz scene in the roaring twenties.

Images courtesy Taschen

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