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April 19, 2016  -  By Kristopher Monroe for Telfair Museums  /  Elvis Express Radio
Elvis Express Radio News
It’s almost hard to imagine now, but the legendary Elvis Presley was once a fresh-faced newcomer to the music industry.

“Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer,” which opens at Telfair’s Jepson Center on April 21, shows the young Elvis as we’ve rarely seen him. All of the photos in this
exhibition were taken in 1956 — when Elvis was only 21 — by an equally young photographer on assignment for RCA. The collection shows the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll on the
cusp of his phenomenal fame.

Interestingly, this exhibition also coincides with the 60th anniversary of Elvis’ first concert in Savannah, at the former Savannah Sports Arena.

The year 1956 was a pivotal one for Elvis. It was the year RCA released “Heartbreak Hotel,” which became the label’s first No. 1 hit with the singer (he scored a hit the previous year
on another label with “I Forgot To Remember To Forget”). It was the year Elvis made his first television appearance and his film debut.

It would also prove to be the last time any photographer was granted such intimate access.

“These photographs are interesting on so many levels,” explains Courtney McNeil, Telfair’s chief curator of collections and exhibitions. “We talk a lot about celebrity and fame today
and what that looks like in the internet age. But of course, one of the earliest prototypes of the ‘superstar’ in America was Elvis ... These [photos] make us look back at the
beginning and think about how he got to that point, where he came from and what got him started.”

Indeed, the intrepid photographer Alfred Wertheimer — who would go on to his own storied career as a documentarian — was able to get many up-close-and-personal shots of
Elvis on his publicity tour, both before and after various TV appearances, including the now famous image, dubbed “The Kiss,” of Elvis touching tongues with a young woman
backstage just before a concert in Richmond, Va. Others show an intimate view of Elvis variously touching up his look before a show, leisurely reading a paper at Penn Station,
lounging at his house with his hometown sweetheart and staring intently into the camera on a train ride from New York.

Many things capture the viewer’s attention in these moments, not the least of which is how incredibly young (and arrestingly handsome) Elvis looks at the time. And while there are a
number of photos of Elvis performing in front of adoring fans, some of the most interesting images in the exhibition are when we see Elvis unaccompanied, whether he’s listening to
a recording of himself on a portable record player, or sitting alone at a lunch counter between public appearances.

It’s also notable that while there are hints of the ultra-fame to come, there are no rushing mobs or stampeding teenage fans. What’s striking at even this early stage is the sheer
magnetism and confidence that Elvis radiates.

“He’s very self-possessed,” McNeil says. “You can see how he would have welcomed the fame that came so soon after this ... You can see both Elvises at once in this exhibition,
because in this brief moment in time, he was both a boy and simultaneously the Elvis that he would become.”

The exhibit opens with a lecture and sock hop celebration from 6-9 p.m. April 21. Exhibition organizer and music photography expert Chris Murray will talk about the works, followed
by a sock hop with ’50s tunes from Savannah Ballroom.