After a ratings-grabbing appearance on The Steve Allen Show and a recording session in New York City that produced “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel”, Elvis returned to Memphis on July 3rd, 1956 by train for a concert at Russwood Park.
In the morning, Elvis repaired to Penn Station to start a 27-hour train ride home to Memphis. Photographer Alfred Wertheimer accompanied Elvis on the train trip from New York to Memphis, and took these photographs of the early Elvis that remain some of the most remarkable and intimate images ever made of any major celebrity, in any era.
“Elvis who?” Photographer Alfred Wertheimer recalled uttering that very question in early 1956. A publicist from RCA Victor Records had contacted him, asking if he was available to photograph a young singer named Elvis Presley.
“I’d never heard of the man,” Wertheimer told TIME. “He didn’t have a gold record yet.”
Elvis started his remarkable career in 1954, and two years later had his first number-one hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” RCA released the record in January 1956. But a few months later, it appears, Elvis was still able to travel by train without getting mobbed.
When asked Alfred why he decided to follow Elvis when he was still unknown, he replied that Elvis “permitted closeness, and he made girls cry.” Photographers today must be jealous looking at these intimate pictures. Now press agents build impenetrable walls to guard the artist’s myth. Alfred made the best of his access, clicking the shutter at the right moment and using mostly available light.
When the train finally got near Memphis, Elvis asked to get off at a stop near the outskirts of town called White Station. It was closer to his home on Audubon Drive than the main station in Memphis. Wertheimer did not miss this moment with his camera and as a result, he captured a truly remarkable series of images of Elvis walking as a regular person for what may have been the last time.
“With only the quick acetate cuts, no luggage or instruments, he hopped off the train and headed down a grassy knoll towards the sidewalk of this little town,” Wertheimer recalled that moment. “Between telephone poles and Cadillacs, Elvis stopped to ask a black woman on the street for directions and then turned to wave to us on the train. As the train started moving, I quickly figured that I was better off taking pictures of what was going on in front of me instead of jumping off the train and following Elvis. If I had stopped to collect my bags and all my equipment, I would have missed what was probably one of the last times he could just walk down the street like an ordinary guy.”
Within a few short months, Elvis Presley would be the most talked-about entertainer in the world. No one would ever again be able to photograph Elvis as Alfred Wertheimer had. Wertheimer captured Elvis at a crossroads of culture. He, with his camera, was our witness to the hero’s return.