Hunk, a hunk of burning love – Elvis’ hot summer in Canberra

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IT’S not every day you come out of the National Portrait Gallery singing “Just Wanna Be Your Teddy Bear”, but so it was when I caught up with Maria Ramsden, a recent convert to the cult of Elvis Presley.

Elvis on train
Elvis on train, 1956

There are some people who really do set up shrines to Elvis, but Ramsden isn’t one of them. Rather, as associate registrar, she’s been deeply involved in receiving and organising the exhibition “Elvis at 21” from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery and de facto, the NPG’s Elvis expert.

At the stage door
Backstage at The Mosque, Richmond, 1956

The teddy bear song comes from the 1957 film “Loving You,” which, along with “Love me Tender”, “Jailhouse Rock” and “King Creole”, is one of Elvis’s earliest movies.

Ramsden tells me with some excitement that throughout the exhibition, which runs until March, they’ll be screening “Love Me Tender” every day. She’s sure the exhibition is going to be a great family, Christmas and summer holiday show and it’ll still be running when the next Parkes Elvis Festival is on in January.

While walking through the photos, she regales me with Elvis stories. At school his interests in music and movies didn’t hit the spot with the sporty crowd, but even then he was drop-dead gorgeous and he knew it, cultivating the moody appearance and sultry look that he attributed to his partial native American ancestry.

He wasn’t gay, but considering just how beautiful he was, Ramsden doesn’t blame the gay community for floating the idea. Far from it, “he absolutely adored women and that’s why they adored him”. Nor was he racist, though he didn’t believe in mixed-race marriages. You can tell she’s a fan.

But, she cautions, in this show we’re looking at a “snapshot” of Elvis at 21. He hasn’t met Priscilla, he’s not on prescription drugs, he hasn’t yet been conscripted into the army and sent to Germany and he’s probably not much interested in cheeseburgers.

What we are actually seeing are photos taken by the commercial snapper Alfred Wertheimer, hired by RCA Victor in 1956 to shoot promotional images of the new boy when he switched from Sun Records to the bigger recording group.

So, this is Elvis in the first flush of success – not totally au naturel, for the Machiavellian Col. Tom Parker was by now busy making him a superstar – but still young and optimistic.

Parker, an illegal immigrant from the Netherlands, was never a colonel or a Tom, but he was a marketing genius, creating the Elvis brand and creaming a fortune off the top. Later Parker would interfere with his life, micromanage his marriage, prevent him from touring worldwide and force him into the countless bland movies that fans loved.

The 21-year-old Elvis loved clothes, his mum Grace, girls and movie stars such as Marlon Brando and James Dean, whom he tried to emulate, posing in one photo with a motorbike.

Above all, he loved all kinds of music, including that of Mario Lanza and Liberace and would surprise his fans with unexpected numbers such as “O Sole Mio”.

Reading fan mail, 1956
Reading fan mail, 1956

But, Ramsden cautions, we mustn’t forget just how shocking Elvis’ sexuality was at the time, so Wertheimer doesn’t show much of his notorious pelvis in action. He does, however, show us Elvis tongue-kissing a young waitress – “the girl of the day,” she says – a shockingly provocative image.

And yet he was a fine gospel singer and a good boy at heart who looked after his family, including his father’s second family.

Greeting fans
Greeting fans in New York City, 1956

“Elvis at 21”, National Portrait Gallery, paid exhibition, until March 10, 10am to 5pm daily. Closed Christmas Day.


With high school sweetheart, Barbara.
With high school sweetheart, Barbara, 1956.

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