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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick in Washington. And back with Photo Op. This is our feature about photography and regular listeners know to go to Npr.org, click the programs button at the top of the page, go to DAY TO DAY to see the glorious photographs by Al Wertheimer, who captured a moment that transformed this country. The pictures collected and published now in the new book, Elvis at 21.

(Soundbite of song "Heartbreak Hotel")

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Singer): (Singing) Well, since my baby left me, well I've found a new place to dwell. Well, it's down at the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel.

CHADWICK: Even those of you who are sick of Baby Boomers, weary with our endless fascination with our time, even you would fall in love with Elvis Presley in 1956.

(Soundbite of song "Heartbreak Hotel")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Although it's always crowded, you can still find some room, for broken hearted lovers to cry there in the gloom and be so lonely...

CHADWICK: He is 21 years old, living outside Memphis. In January 1956, he is still playing high school gyms. By December, he's the most famous entertainer in the world. Elvis doesn't light up American culture, he torches it.

(Soundbite of song "Ready Teddy")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) I'm ready, ready, ready Teddy. I'm ready, ready, ready to rock 'n' roll.

CHADWICK: Al Wertheimer was a refugee from Germany, six years old when he got to this country back in the '30s. Twenty years later, he is a freelance photographer in New York and RCA hires him to follow this singer.

(Soundbite of song "Ready Teddy")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) I'm ready, ready, ready Teddy. I'm ready, ready, ready to rock 'n' roll.

Mr. AL WERTHEIMER (Photographer): Ann Folkino(ph) from RCA's publicity department called me and said well I'd like you to cover the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey stage show. So I said oh, Tommy Dorsey. Hey, he's one of my favorites. She says, no, no, no. Elvis Presley. And I said Elvis, who?

(Soundbite of song "Any Way You Want Me")

CHADWICK: Well, he was not yet Elvis.

(Soundbite of song "Any Way You Want Me")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) I'll be as strong as a mountain...

CHADWICK: Al Wertheimer, there's a chapter or a section of this book called Studio 1, and this is you photographing the day when Elvis recorded Hound Dog, Don't Be Cruel, and Any Way You Want me.

(Soundbite of song "Any Way You Want Me")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Anyway you want me, well that's how I will be.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: That's right.

CHADWICK: What a day to be there.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: Well, we didn't know it was going to be that famous, and I was lucky enough to be in that recording session. With Don't Be Cruel, they even set up two microphones. One for the slap on the back of the leather guitar, so that, you know, the upper mic was for his voice and the lower mic was for the slap on his guitar. So when it goes, don't be cruel - slap - to a heart that's true - slap -...

(Soundbite of song "Don't be Cruel")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Don't be cruel to a heart that's true. I don't want no other love, baby its just you I'm thinking of. Don't be cruel to a heart that's true.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: So that slap is on the back of the guitar. It's not on the front of the guitar. They went through the trouble of setting up a mic just for that.

(Soundbite of song "Don't be Cruel")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) I don't want no other love, baby it's just you I'm thinking of.

CHADWICK: Two days, RCA says. Al decides to hang around a little longer. Elvis takes a train back home. Al follows him, clicking away. Three thousand shots in all, but there is one that is like no other.

I showed a woman friend this photo, she hadn't seen it before. She gasped when she saw it.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: Which one?

CHADWICK: Do you know which image I'm talking of?

Mr. WERTHEIMER: You talking about the kiss?

CHADWICK: Yes.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: Well, people make a much bigger fuss about it than it really was. Actually, it was almost a childlike happening. The first time I met up with that woman was her walking in with Elvis and Junior Smith - his gopher - into the Jefferson Hotel and checking in at the check-in counter. And there she was in her high heels. She must have been all of 4 foot-11 and a half with 4-inch heels. But she is one step higher than Elvis.

CHADWICK: They're on a staircase in the back of the...

Mr. WERTHEIMER: A staircase - it's a landing area with two or three steps coming down. Now, here I was in the dressing room and Elvis had just changed his clothes and combed his hair and all of a sudden he disappeared. I'm looking around and I go down the fire staircase. As I'm walking down the stairs, I look around this narrow passage way and down at the end of the narrow passage way there are these two silhouettes. And I recognize that to be Elvis and the young lady, who has remained anonymous all these years.

(Soundbite of song "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Hold me close, hold me tight, make me thrill with delight. Let me know where I stand from the start. I want you, I need you, I love you...

Mr. WERTHEIMER: And there's a small 50-watt light over their head and a tiny little window behind them, and I'm saying to myself, do I photograph this or is this too private? What the heck, I'm a journalist. If I don't do this, I might as well pack up and go home. The worst that can happen to me is he'll ask me to leave.

So I decide to become a human tripod and begin to photograph at some very slow shutter speeds. So then I got a little braver, and I said, well, I'll go in a little bit. So then I got up on that handrail and balanced myself. Now I was within about five feet of them, and they were so involved - see, that's one of the secrets of good photographs. If people are involved, they don't notice the photographer. They could care less.

And then I said, well, I'm not happy with this lighting. Now I'm beginning to be fussy. So I take on my maintenance persona and I get back down off the handrail, and I say, excuse me, coming through, like I'm working for the building, and they just moved over and let me scoot on by. Now I was happily down on a landing area, you know, about three or four steps below them, and of course I have to do a little photography talk here. Now I had my front light from the window. I had a little fill-in light from the top, that little bulb. And then just as I - just as I get myself settled down, and having clicked away, maybe snapped away one or two shots, she says to him, Elvis, I'll bet you can't kiss me.

(Soundbite of song "Lawdy Miss Clawdy")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, Lord, Lord, Lord. Well, you sure look good to me...

Mr. WERTHEIMER: She sticks out her tongue at him.

(Soundbite of song "Lawdy Miss Clawdy")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) But please dont excite me baby, I know it can't be me.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: And Elvis, being cool as ever, he comes in for the kiss, but he overshoots the landing and he bends her nose. And then he backs up just slightly and touches the tip of her tongue, and he says, I'll bet you I can, and he does that.

And then I said, oh, I'd better leave these two alone.

(Soundbite of song "Lawdy Miss Clawdy")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Oh gonna tell, tell my mama, Lord, I swear girl what you been to me, I'm gonna tell everybody that Im down in misery

CHADWICK: Al Wertheimer, thank you for speaking with us on DAY TO DAY.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: Right. And I thank Elvis.

(Soundbite of song "Lawdy Miss Clawdy")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) So bye, bye, bye, baby, girl, I wont be comin' no more, goodbye little darlin', down the road I'll go.

CHADWICK: Photographer Al Wertheimer's new book is Elvis at 21 from Palace Press. A show from the book will travel around the country. It debuts tonight at the Govinda Gallery in Washington, D.C.

(Soundbite of song "Lawdy Miss Clawdy")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) So bye, bye, bye, baby, girl, I wont be comin' no more, goodbye little darlin', down the road I'll go.

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