Elvis, 1955-1956 - A Star Is Born

By: Judy Ringel
Source: Memphis Magazine
January 10, 2006

Fourteen thousand Memphians - mostly teenagers - packed Russwood Park on July 4, 1956, to see Elvis perform. 'I'm gonna show you what the real Elvis is like tonight', announced Presley, apparently referring to his decidedly un-Elvis-like performance on The Steve Allen Show three days earlier.

It was August 1955. In Geneva, diplomats were negotiating the release of 11 American pilots who had been captured during the Korean 'police action' and were still being held by the 'Red' Chinese. In Paris, fashion designer Christian Dior was unveiling his new 'Y' look for fall. In Washington, the U.S. Public Health Service was distributing the first shipments of Salk polio vaccine to state health agencies, and everyone was wondering whether Ike would run again in '56.

In Memphis, a home-grown kid by the name of Elvis Presley was poised on the threshold of fame and fortune. It was an exciting time for the 20-year-old Elvis. Just 13 months earlier he had been nothing more than a truck driver with a guitar and a pleasant singing voice. Now he was a full-time country/hillbilly singer with five records to his credit on the Memphis-based Sun label, and one of those records had actually chalked up enough sales to earn a spot on the national country-and-western charts. He was making weekly appearances on the Louisiana Hayride radio show, a Grand Ole Opry rival that was broadcast every Saturday night from Shreveport. And he was touring the South and Southwest, playing scores of one-night-stands at schoolhouses and community centers from Tennessee to Texas.

Still, in August of 1955, no one - least of all Elvis - could have imagined the celebrity and adulation that would soon be his, or the hysteria that would soon surround him. To be sure, there were a few hints, like the time in May of that year when he played the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, with a group of performers led by country singer Hank Snow, and Elvis' swivel-hipped performance caused a near-riot among the teenaged girls in the audience. But at this point in his career, Elvis' growing reputation as an elec-trifying entertainer remained regional in scope. And even within the region, plenty of folks had never heard of him.

One man who had heard of him was Robert Dye. A lifelong resident of Bartlett, Dye was 34 back then, and an avid photo bug. Working by day in the grain-elevator construction business, he would spend most evenings and weekends snapping pictures - of children, dogs, accidents, fires, visiting celebrities, whatever caught his fancy - and developing them in the darkroom behind his house. A veteran of three-and-a-half years in the Navy during World War II, Dye had learned the finer points of photography and film processing from a buddy who was the official Navy photographer for the destroyer USS Decker, on which both men served. 'He would tell me to wash prints - make a dozen of these, a half-dozen of those', Dye says now, reminiscing over a glass of iced tea on the oak-shaded and begonia-bordered patio in his spacious backyard. 'If you made a mistake, you just threw it in File 13 - the waste basket. I learned a lot in that darkroom. And when I got home, I had to have me a darkroom of my own'.

Once the darkroom was built, it wasn't long before Dye became one of the area's leading amateur photographers. Beginning in 1948, his name started turning up regularly among the first-prize winners in The Commercial Appeal's annual amateur snapshot contests; by 1952, despite a bout with polio the previous summer, he'd captured a grand prize in the National Snapshot Awards competition, the first of four such awards he would eventually bring home.

Dye particularly enjoyed photographing celebrities. Whenever someone like the notorious fan-dancer Sally Rand came to town, or pretty-boy wrestler Gorgeous George, or bandleader Les Paul and his wife, singer Mary Ford, Dye would be there too, snapping pictures right alongside the professional news photographers.

So it wasn't surprising that when The Commercial Appeal ran a story on the morning of August 5, 1955, promoting a 'big hillbilly show' at the Overton Park Shell that night, a show 'co-starring Webb Pierce, nationally known country music star, and Elvis Presley of Memphis, swiftly rising young favorite', Dye decided he'd mosey on down there to try to photograph Pierce. He also wanted to take a look at the handsome young singer, the one about whom WHBQ disc jockey Dewey Phillips and others were beginning to make such a fuss. Naturally, he took along his Busch press camera and plenty of flashbulbs.

The photographs Dye took backstage at the Shell that night of a fresh, young, cocky, exuberant Elvis, all decked out in a see-through lace shirt, pegged pants, and white bucks, were the first of several dozen shots Dye would snap of Elvis over the next 13 months. For the past 30 years, those pictures have lain undisturbed in a plain cardboard box in Dye's home, a box marked only by the word 'Elvis' scrawled on it in grease pencil. 'I never took even one [of the pictures] to the papers, or to any magazines', says Dye, who is retired now and no longer so enthralled with photography as he once was (his new passion is woodworking). 'I just kept them. And really, I just forgot them. The only time I even thought about doing something with them was after he died. I took them out and looked at them, but then I put them back'.

The pictures surfaced again recently when Dye decided to let the sun shine in-literally-on his darkroom by making it into a greenhouse for his wife Jonell. Son Robert was recruited to help sort through the hundreds of boxes of old photos, and it was he who came across - and encouraged his father to 'do something with' - the collection of Elvis photos. The elder Dye sent them off to Washington to have them copyrighted, and then made the collection available to Memphis. Following the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, we leaped at the opportunity to display such rare photos in the magazine. One of the performers on the program at the Overton Park Shell on August 5, 1955, was a man characterized in the newspaper that morning as 'new Memphis singer Johnny Cash'. Dye doesn't remember Cash being there, however, and he doesn't have any pictures of him. He does remember Elvis, though, as clearly as if it were yesterday. 'I was standing backstage', he recalls, 'and when it got time for Elvis to come on stage, it was, 'Where's Elvis? Where's Elvis?' Nobody could find him. He was outside gabbing with the girls. Well, they finally found him, and he comes running in and says, 'Where's my guitar?' So one of the other performers says, 'Here, take mine'. Well, Elvis goes out there - he didn't have any fancy outfits back then; he just went to Lansky's and bought him a zoot suit with little peg legs and cuffs - and the girls start screamin' and hollerin', and he breaks two strings on that guitar. Then he comes back and hands the guitar back with the two broken strings hanging off of it, and the man who lent it to him was furious. 'That guy will never get another guitar from me', he said. 'I don't care who he is'.

Over the next year or so, as the whole world found out who Elvis was, Dye continued to photograph him as often as he could, whenever the singer was in town and appearing in public. 'Of course, when I was photographing Elvis he was wanting publicity real bad', Dye says now. 'But he was a good guy. I'd say, 'Hey El, how about a picture?' And he'd say, 'Sure. Where do you want me?' I'd say, 'How about standing over there?' He'd say, 'Okay'. Then I'd say, 'Now do this'. And he'd answer, 'Sure'. A lot of celebrities just won't do that, and you have to get the picture the best way you can. And some you don't get, 'cause there's no way you can get close to them. But Elvis didn't mind-not in those days'.

Unfortunately for Dye, 'those days' didn't last very much longer. Ten days after the concert at the Overton Park Shell (now the Raoul Wallenberg Shell), Elvis and his then-manager, WMPS disc jockey Bob Neal, signed their first contract with Colonel Tom Parker, an agreement that provided for Parker to become a 'special adviser' to Elvis. Three months later, in November 1955, Parker became the 'sole and exclusive advisor and personal representative' to Elvis, and as his first official act he engineered the sale of Elvis' contract to RCA for $40,000 ($35,000 went to Sun Recording Studio head Sam Phillips, and $5,000 went to Elvis himself as a sort of signing bonus). At the same time, Hill and Range music publishers bought the publishing rights to Elvis' songs for $15,000. And from then on, Elvis' career took off at a whirlwind pace.

On January 10, 1956, two days after his 21st birthday, Elvis cut his first records for RCA, and three weeks later he made his first national TV appearance (on The Jackie Gleason Stage Show Starring Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey). In February, 'Heartbreak Hotel' was released, followed a month later by 'Blue Suede Shoes'. By April, 'Heartbreak Hotel' had made it to the number-one spot on the charts, Elvis had appeared on The Milton Berle Show, and movie producer Hal Wallis had signed him to a three-picture contract at a starting salary of $100,000 a picture.

By the time Elvis came back home in May 1956 to be the headline attraction at Cotton Carnival's Cotton Pickin' Jamboree, deejays from New York to San Francisco were playing 'Hound Dog' and its flip side, 'Don't Be Cruel', both of which, amazingly, would soon qualify as number-one hits. By then, in fact, the measure of Elvis' popularity was such that between August and December 1956, no other singer in America had a number-one record.

On September 9th of that year, Elvis made his first appearance on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town; the show cornered a whopping 82.6 percent of the viewing audience, a record that would stand until the Beatles appeared on the show eight years later. Three weeks after the Sullivan appearance, Robert Dye caught up with Elvis at the Mid-South Fair and snapped his last pictures of him. 'After he went on Ed Sullivan, his price got so high, Memphis couldn't afford him', Dye recalls. 'So after 1956, he pretty much quit coming back here to perform, and I quit taking pictures of him'.

Dye, of course, would have preferred to go on taking pictures of Elvis for the next 20 years, but he certainly doesn't feel that he was shortchanged. Looking back at Elvis' career, he says, it's clear that if he'd had to choose just one year in the singer's life to record in pictures, mid-1955 to mid-1956 would be that period. For it was during those 12 months that Elvis was transformed, almost by magic, from 'swiftly rising young favorite' to King of Rock-and-Roll. As Elvis biographer Albert Goldman has written of that period: 'The boy who began the year as an obscure country singer broadcasting from a hillbilly station at Shreveport . . . was now, less than 12 months later, an American hero. Nobody in the history of show business has ever made it so big so fast'.

And 'amateur' photographer Robert Dye was there to chronicle that transformation on film. Robert Dye still lives in Bartlett today. In 1992, the photos he took of Elvis were purchased by Elvis Presley Enterprises.

This story originally appeared in the July/August 1986 issue. A regular contributor since 1981, Judy Ringel was named associate editor of Memphis in 1982. She held that position until 1988, when she was promoted to senior editor. Ringel served as associate publisher of Contemporary Media from 1990 to 1991.

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