Forever Elvis in Tampa

By: Greg Williams
Source: Elvis Australia
January 1, 2008

Tampa photographer William V. (Red) Robertson is believed to have taken this photo of Elvis at Tampa's Fort Homer Hesterly Armory on July 31, 1955.
Tampa photographer William V. (Red) Robertson is believed to have taken this photo of Elvis at Tampa's Fort Homer Hesterly Armory on July 31, 1955.
One of the earliest and most widely seen performance photos of Elvis Presley was taken right here in Tampa, during a 1955 concert appearance at Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

A tightly cropped version of the photo was used on the cover of Presley's first album.

That much, at least, seems to be accepted as fact by most of the King's archivists and biographers.

But specifics about the photo's origins have been as fuzzy as the green shag carpet in the Jungle Room of Presley's Graceland mansion.

How did a classic image from one of rock 'n' roll's most famous album covers - recently hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 50 best - become shrink-wrapped in mystery?

It's understandable.

The sheer volume of written material about Presley virtually guarantees that factual discrepancies will crop up. Even the most dedicated rock historians have disagreed about when the Tampa photo was taken and who snapped the image.

No longer.

Today we are proud to present the definitive story of Tampa's early role in the iconography of Elvis.

But first, a bit of background about the young singer, the concert photo, the album cover and the mysteries surrounding them.

Williams V. "Red" Robertson did field work for his Robertson & Fresh commercial studio. The studio was hired by Col Tom Parker to photograph a show with Elvis Presley on July 31, 1955
Williams V. "Red" Robertson did field work for his Robertson & Fresh commercial studio. The studio was hired by Col Tom Parker to photograph a show with Elvis Presley on July 31, 1955
Connections To Tampa

Elvis Presley was just 20 years old when he hit the stage in Tampa on Sunday, July 31, 1955.

Presley already had cut a handful of singles with producer Sam Phillips in Memphis, Tenn., but those original Sun Studio recordings had not received wide distribution. He was still primarily a regional act, although word of his wildly energetic shows was spreading through the South.

It was not the first time the future pop idol had performed for a Tampa audience. Presley had appeared at Fort Homer Hesterly Armory once before - on May 8, 1955, as the closing act in country singer Hank Snow's All Star Jamboree tour.

Five days after his first Tampa appearance, Presley caused a minor riot in Jacksonville by closing his show with the announcement, "Girls, I'll see you backstage." In their 1999 book, "Elvis Day by Day," Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen write that fans pursued Presley into his dressing room, where they tore off his clothes and shoes.

Col. Tom Parker, a music promoter with longstanding ties to Tampa, was impressed by Presley's potential and had begun looking for ways to work more closely with the young singer. Steve Rinaldi Sr. of Tampa, whose parents were friendly with the Colonel, recalls hearing Parker talking enthusiastically about 'the kid' in early 1955, confidently predicting he would become 'the biggest thing in show business'.

By the time Presley returned to Tampa in July, Parker had forged a deal to handle all his booking and long-term planning, according to Guralnick and Jorgensen. Parker also was working to move Presley from Sun Records and onto a major record label.

On The Road To Stardom

Presley performed two shows in Tampa on July 31, 1955, both of them at Fort Homer Hesterly Armory on North Howard Avenue.

The shows, fundraisers sponsored by the Sertoma Club of Tampa, featured folksy comic Andy Griffith as headliner, along with Ferlin Husky, Marty Robbins and other Grand Ole Opry stars. Presley's name was listed near the bottom of the bill in an ad that appeared in The Tampa Tribune. Guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black shared the stage with Presley. General-admission tickets for the shows, a 2:30 matinee and an 8:15 evening performance, were $1.25 each. Children younger than 12 were admitted for 50 cents.

Parker paid the Sertoma Club $5,000 "for their support and help" as sponsors of the concert, Rinaldi says - a typical example of Parker's loyalty to friends and associates in Tampa. (The family business, Rinaldi Printing, also benefited from Parker's connection to Presley, producing all Elvis-related promotional and concert materials for many years.)

With visions of stardom clearly in mind, Parker hired an established Tampa photo studio, Robertson & Fresh, to document Presley's stage act.

William V. 'Rd'Robertson was in his late 40s in 1955. A native of Augusta, Ga., he had operated the Robertson & Fresh commercial studio in Tampa since 1932. Robertson worked as the primary field photographer, while partner Harry Fresh stayed in the darkroom, processing and printing the photos.

Robertson died in 1963, but one of his daughters, Verna Lee Lupo, still lives in Tampa - and she recalls that her father had taken some photos of Presley in the 1950s.

"I have his photos someplace," Lupo says. "Two or three different prints of Elvis with his guitar, onstage."

Lupo attended an early Elvis Presley show in Tampa, but not the one that featured Andy Griffith as the main attraction. "I was at the one in 1956," she says. And she doesn't remember seeing her father there.

At this writing, Lupo has been unable to locate the Presley prints - so she cannot say with certainty that it was her father who took the famous photo.

Narrowing The Possibilities

Tommy Eure, who calls himself 'he oldest living photographer in Tampa' worked for Robertson & Fresh until 1953, when he left to start his own business. Eure shot photos at one of Presley's early Armory performances, but the singer's clothes are considerably different from those seen on the album cover.

Like Lupo, Eure says he can't recall seeing Robertson at the concert that he attended.

Walter Smalling, now a freelance photographer in Washington, D.C., bolsters the case for Robertson & Fresh.

"I do specifically remember seeing negatives and prints of Elvis Presley in the collection," Smalling says. He was involved in rescuing many of the studio's photos while a student at the University of South Florida in the early 1970s.

Along with several faculty members from USF's photography department, Smalling purchased 50,000 neglected negatives from Robertson & Fresh. "We found them literally rotting in a garage," Smalling says.

Although many of the images were badly damaged, thousands were preserved and catalogued at Tampa's downtown library. Those files later were transferred to USF's special collections department.

An entry in a logbook from USF'S archives confirms that Parker arranged for the Tampa studio to photograph a show on July 31, 1955.

Paul Camp, a special collections librarian, discovered the entry (order No. 17142) in an appointment book from USF's Robertson & Fresh archives.

Nearly 3,000 Robertson & Fresh photos are available for online searches through the USF library's Web site, but you won't find any photos of Presley. Camp says no prints or negatives matching order No. 17142 have been found in the university's files.

Elvis biographer Guralnick says it's likely that Parker took possession of the 1955 concert photos. Parker was personally involved in all aspects of the Presley image-making machine, and he almost certainly provided RCA with the cover photo for the 1956 "Elvis Presley" album.

Guralnick and Jorgensen had full access to Graceland's archives while compiling materials for Elvis Day by Day, including Parker's voluminous collection of photographs and memorabilia. A series of photos from the July 31 show in Tampa is stored in the Graceland archives.

Some of those photos carry a Robertson & Fresh imprint, Guralnick says - but not the shot that was used on the album cover.

Unfortunately, Guralnick and Jorgensen's book is one of several high-profile Presley biographies that credit the album cover shot to celebrity photographer William S. "Popsie" Randolph, not Robertson & Fresh.

Popsie, a former road manager for bandleaders Benny Goodman and Woody Herman, turned to celebrity photography in 1944. He died in Arizona in 1978.

Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley
Robertson Or Popsie?

Resolving this apparent historical stalemate took a few phone calls, e-mails and faxes. But the facts are in.

"We were wrong," Guralnick says. Guralnick and Jorgensen relied on a credit line from the back cover of Presley's first album that reads "Photos: Popsie." Guralnick says they didn't know at the time what Robertson & Fresh was, and they could find no documents that would have disproved the Popsie credit.

Joe Tunzi, a music archivist and author of 20 books about Elvis, is adamant about the source of the photo: "Forget about Popsie. Popsie did not take that photo."

Tunzi, who runs JAT Publishing in Chicago, says the credit line refers only to a series of four shots that were used on the album's back cover, not to the vibrant black-and-white cover photo. Though the photo used on the album cover has no imprint, Tunzi says it clearly fits into the sequence of shots by Robertson & Fresh.

Jorgensen agrees. "You're right about the photos," Jorgensen wrote when contacted for this article. "Robertson/Fresh took the front - Popsie the rest."

Rock 'N' Roll Immortality

In spite of the various mysteries that have surrounded the Tampa photo, its importance as a cultural icon has never been in doubt.

Earlier this year, Rolling Stone included the Evis Presley album as one of the '50 Best Album Covers'.

"Elvis Presley wasn't the first rock & roll artist," Michael Ansaldo wrote, "but his debut album cover presented the world with the music's first tangible image."

The compelling photo "suggests all the wild gyrations that struck fear in the hearts of the nation's elders - and a rock & roll star was born."

Designer Ray Lowry saluted the Elvis Presley cover with his approach to the 1979 album 'London Calling' by The Clash. As quoted in the 1999 book '100 Best Album Covers', Lowry says his Clash cover was intended to be "a genuine homage to the original, unknown, inspired genius who created Elvis Presley's first rock 'n' roll record."

Lowry praised "the strange potency of the pink and green lettering and the sheer vibrancy of the Elvis picture."

Did a single concert photo from Tampa help to propel Presley's career? Was the work of an unsung commercial photographer one of the driving forces behind the rock 'n' roll revolution? Music historians and graphic design experts might answer 'yes'.

Of course, it helps that the album contained a dozen of Presley's most influential recordings, including 'Blue Suede Shoes', 'Tutti Frutti', 'Money Honey', 'Blue Moon' and 'Just Because'.

The album undoubtedly would have topped the charts regardless of its cover. Just because.

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