No photographer would ever get as close to Elvis as Alfred Wertheimer. His intimate photographs of the young, rising star reveal a carefree and innocent time before he became a cultural icon. On the publication of Taschen’s new book, Elvis and the Birth of Rock and Roll, TIME met with Wertheimer to reminisce about the days and nights he spent with the rocker on the cusp of unfathomable fame: http://ti.me/Z5FfTe
Wertheimer talks about his iconic picture, ‘The Kiss’: June 30, 1956. Backstage at the Mosque Theatre, Richmond Virginia. The story on this one is that Elvis had performed somewhere near Charleston, South Carolina on one of those one-day affairs. So Elvis was back in his hotel room. She was with some of her friends, slightly inebriated, when her friends said, “we dare you to call Elvis at his hotel.” So she gets on the phone and she’s showing the gals that she’s got chutzpah and says, “Are you Elvis Presley?” He says, “Yes, I am.” At the time, her name was Bobbi Owens, so he says, “That’s nice Bobbi,” and they get into a half an hour chat. Elvis says, “The next time I’m down in this area I’ll send a car for you and you can come up and be with me all day and watch from backstage.” So she said “okay.”
A while later, maybe a month or so, he’s performing at the Mosque theater, and so he calls her and says “I’ll be there on the 30th of June, can you make it?” So he has one of his bodyguards drive from Memphis (400 miles) down to South Carolina, pick her up and go up to Richmond (that’s almost a 1000 miles round trip). And Elvis meets her at the hotel, and they horse around a little bit at the hotel.
Then he takes her to the theater in the back of the cab with ‘Junior’ Smith. After Elvis finishes combing his hair above the stage (there were no dressing room in the theater) he disappeared on me. I looked around to find Elvis, so I walk down the stairwell… and I see two figures at the end of the hallway, with a light over their head and a bulb in the background. And I’m standing here, I become a human tripod… I’m shooting stuff at a half a second, and I’m thinking about what Capa said, that if you aren’t close enough, your photos are probably boring…so I try and get up on top of these pipes and shoot over her shoulder Hollywood style into her face. What I needed was front lighting. So I’m going down on the landing and I’ve got my front lighting, and no sooner do I get myself set, then she says to him, “Elvis, I bet you can’t kiss me!” That’s all he needed, so he said, “I betcha I can.” I didn’t realize that he had tried twice to kiss her until about two weeks later. Until I developed my film in my laboratory, I didn’t realize he had bent her nose the first time, and the second time it was perfect, tongue to tongue, tip to tip. 55 years later, she denies on national television that he ever did kiss her, and that she was really on her way to Philadelphia to see her boyfriend.
For more of Wertheimer’s images and memories of Elvis, visit LightBox.