Ernest Withers: Eye on Elvis | Camera Captured Pictures Of Early Elvis

By: Jon W. Sparks
Source: The Commercial Appeal
August 15, 2003

Ernest Withers's fame comes from his skill with a camera and his ability to be in the right place at precisely the right time. So, of countless images in the world of Elvis Presley, the ones by the renowned Memphis photographer are of special interest. Elvis had this thing for music, you see, especially gospel and R&B. As Withers puts it: 'He began to show up at musical events where I happened to be'.

Few white people in segregated Memphis in the 1950s would have considered going to these places.

But Elvis liked to visit East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church where Rev. W. Herbert Brewster, a renowned gospel composer, produced a show broadcast by WHBQ on Sunday nights. And Elvis showed up at the WDIA Goodwill Revue two years in a row where he posed for Withers with the featured black entertainers.

Withers had been shooting professionally since the early 1940s;

Elvis' star was just beginning its ascent. 'I've been in the picture business for 61 years', says the photographer, who took the camera his sister's boyfriend didn't want and parlayed it into a distinguished career.

Today, what Withers calls his studio is really a historical treasure. Tucked at the back of 333 Beale, walls of at least four rooms are covered with photographs, paintings and framed newspaper and magazine articles. Desks are piled with documents and file cabinets are jammed everywhere.

In particular, it is the flow of African-American society he has recorded. Labels on file cabinet drawers say 'Black History', 'Black Church', 'COGIC' and 'Civil Rights and Activist'. It is a singular archive of the region's history by a photographer whose reputation resonates around the world as a documentarian of life in the South.

He turned 81 a week ago and Withers is still on the job, all over town, doing everything from portraits to house photos for insurance firms. 'I was never a great glamour photographer. But I always got a good decent exposure', he says with typical modesty. But his 'good decent' abilities put him at the scene of numerous historic events and often in the presence of celebrity - from the time he first snapped a picture of Joe Louis's wife, Marva, at a school assembly. As for Elvis, Withers says, 'He had respect for people by age and he had respect for black people'. It was a time when the established order was unconcerned if a white man was dismissive of a black man, and the photographer was impressed with young Elvis.

Withers saw something different in Elvis. 'He was fond of Walter Culpepper who ran a barbecue shop on Hernando Street'. Elvis always referred to the black proprietor as 'Mr. Culpepper'.

Withers says, 'When he was asked 'Why do you call him 'mister' - he's just a barbecue guy?' Elvis said 'He's a man'. 'That', Withers says, 'is just humility in his temperament'.

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