the world’s most famous and iconic rock & roll photograph

Es­ti­mated reading time is 8 min­utes.

THE MOST ICONIC IMAGE in rock & roll his­tory was taken at the dawn of the gen­re’s rise to pop­u­larity. It is of a young Elvis Presley be­fore most of the world had even heard his name, let alone his music. He is on stage, legs spread, his body pulled back from his new Martin D‑28 guitar. Eyes tightly closed as he sings—he looks trans­formed like the music has taken him away.

Mil­lions of people are fa­miliar with this image as the photo on the front cover of Pres­ley’s first album from 1956, ELVIS PRESLEY (RCA Victor LPM-1254). In­for­ma­tion about the pho­to­graph was lost decades ago, and for a long time, it was cred­ited to William S. “Popsie” Ran­dolph, a well-known pho­tog­ra­pher of celebri­ties at the time.

This is un­der­stand­able, as the back cover for LPM-1254 states “Photos: Popsie.” Popsie Ran­dolph had taken the four photos that were used on the back cover of the LPM-1254 jacket, so it was as­sumed that he also took the shot on the front cover.

But sev­eral experts—notably Joe Tunzi of JAT Publishing—had long ar­gued against Popsie being the source.


The most iconic rock & roll photograph: Elvis Presley on July 31, 1955, by Red Robertson.

William “Red” Robert­son’s iconic pho­to­graph of a 20-year-old Elvis Presley in July 1955. While the singer was a sen­sa­tion south of the Mason-Dixon Line, he was un­known to the rest of the world. Twelve months later, he would be the most talked-about new per­son­ality in recorded music.

The most iconic rock & roll photograph

In an ar­ticle ti­tled “For­ever Elvis in Tampa” for the Elvis Aus­tralia web­site, Greg Williams noted that specifics facts about the photo have fuzzy for decades:

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 fifty best—become shrinkwrapped 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.”


The most iconic rock & roll photograph was used on the front cover of Elvis Presley's first LP album.

LPM-1254 was the fastest-selling LP in RCA’s brief his­tory of man­u­fac­turing LPs, selling 362,000 copies in its first few weeks! It may have been the biggest selling rock & roll LP of the ’50s, a time when LPs did not sell in large num­bers. In 2011, it re­ceived an RIAA Plat­inum Record Award for sales of 1,000,000 units, one of only a few LPs is­sued in that decade so cer­ti­fied. It has re­mained in print as an LP, a pre­re­corded tape, and a CD, and has been seen by count­less mil­lions world­wide. 2


The most iconic rock & roll photograph was not used on the back cover of Elvis Presley's first LP album.

This is the back cover of LPM-1254 with the four photos of Elvis taken on De­cember 1, 1955, while Presley and the Colonel were in New York to meet with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of RCA Victor, his new record com­pany. In the bottom left corner is the credit Photos: “Popsie”—which makes it easy to see why fans and his­to­rians long as­sumed the front cover photo was also by Popsie Randolph.

How the photo was used

Al­though man­aged by Bob Neal at the time of the pho­to­graph, Colonel Parker had made a deal with Neal in early 1955 to handle Pres­ley’s booking and the long-term plan­ning of his ca­reer. This in­cluded get­ting Elvis away from tiny Sun Records and signed to a major recording company.

So it was Parker that hired Robertson & fresh and it was Parker that had con­trol of the pho­tographs that they took in Tampa on July 31, 1955. When Elvis moved to RCA Victor in No­vember, Parker used the Robertson photo for var­ious com­mer­cial and pro­mo­tional pur­poses throughout 1956, such as books and posters (see ex­am­ples below).

But the most im­por­tant use of the Robertson photo was by RCA Victor: in March 1956, the world’s largest record com­pany is­sued three Elvis al­bums simultaneously:

  EPA-747, a one-record EP album with four tracks
  EPB-1254, a two-record EP album with eight tracks
  LPM-1254, a one-record LP album with twelve tracks

Each album was ti­tled ELVIS PRESLEY and bore the same image of the singer, cropped from the Robertson photo. Each con­tained tracks from the same batch of twelve record­ings. Each sold hun­dreds of thou­sands of copies and were seen by mil­lions of Americans.

Sim­ilar records were is­sued in most of the major market coun­tries around the world, ex­posing the image to mil­lions more. The world of pop­ular music has never been the same!


The most iconic rock & roll photograph was used on the front cover of Elvis Presley's first EP album.

EPA-747 quickly passed 400,000 in sales, making it the biggest-selling EP up to that time. These sales were helped by the fact that radio sta­tions were playing Blue Suede Shoes like it was a single, and it ac­tu­ally reached #20 on the Bill­board Top 100—a survey that counted radio spins and jukebox plays along with ac­tual sales.

Colonel Parker hired Red Robertson

When bi­og­ra­phers Peter Gu­ral­nick and Ernst Jor­gensen re­searched their ex­cel­lent book Elvis – Day by Day (1999), they also as­sumed that Ran­dolph had taken the photo. Even­tu­ally, they ver­i­fied Tun­zi’s ar­gu­ment that the photo was taken on July 31, 1955, at the Fort Homer Hes­terly Ar­mory in Tampa, Florida, by Robertson.

Ap­par­ently, Colonel Parker hired the Robertson & Fresh studio of Tampa to shoot a few photos of the Sun Records recording artist during his performance.

So it is that we now credit the first iconic rock & roll image—if not the most iconic of rock & roll images—to William “Red” Robertson. 1


The most iconic rock & roll photograph was used on the front cover of Elvis Presley's first double-EP album.

EPB-1254 was the only multi-disc Elvis EP that RCA Victor re­leased. The com­pany had been is­suing multi-disc EPs for years—especially in their clas­sical music line, where boxed sets with as many as six records were common. What sep­a­rates EPB-1254 from the rest is that it sold so well: ini­tial sales were over 100,000 copies and it con­tinued to ap­pear on Bill­board’s best-selling EP chart into 1960!

How the photo wasn’t used

Within weeks of buying Elvis Pres­ley’s con­tract from Sun Records for the un­prece­dented sum of $40,000, RCA Victor is­sued I Forgot To Re­member To Forget / Mys­tery Train on De­cember 2, 1955. With their pro­mo­tional clout, the record topped Bill­board’s na­tional country & western charts in early 1956.

Later in De­cember, they reis­sued the other four Sun records, es­sen­tially flooding the market with Presley Product. All five records took off and were among Vic­tor’s best-selling sin­gles for months. But RCA did not issue them with pic­ture sleeves!


The sheer volume of written ma­te­rial about Presley guar­an­tees dis­crep­an­cies will crop up.


Given Pres­ley’s looks, it has al­ways baf­fled me that they didn’t ex­ploit his face with custom pic­ture sleeves for these records. Since we know that the Robertson photo was in the hands of Parker for months, why wasn’t it used for one or all five of these 45s?

Even if as­sume that the Victor people were pinching pen­nies with their Presley Product to see how their $40,000 in­vest­ment panned out, why wasn’t the photo used as a pic­ture sleeve for Heart­break Hotel / I Was The One when it was re­leased in Jan­uary 1956?

It seems nat­ural that with the five Sun reissue sin­gles taking off that RCA would spend a half-a-penny a record to in­clude an at­trac­tive pic­ture sleeve with the first ‘new’ Elvis record on their imprint.

But they didn’t, and we will al­most cer­tainly never know why. 3


The most iconic rock & roll photograph was used on the front cover of the MR DYNAMITE souvenir photo book.

The most iconic rock & roll photograph was used on a poster thanking Milton Berle in 1956.

The most iconic rock & roll photograph was used on posters for Elvis Presley's appearances in 1956.

The 8‑page sou­venir photo album (top image) is known as the “Mr. Dy­na­mite” book be­cause of the blurb on the front cover. This was the first such book about Elvis and was sold by the Colonel at Pres­ley’s shows in 1956. The paper poster (middle image) thanks Milton Berle for having Elvis as the fea­tured guest on his show on June 5, 1956. The Robertson photo was used on posters for Pres­ley’s ap­pear­ances throughout the year 1956 (bottom image). This one is for his shows in Jack­sonville, Florida, on Au­gust 10–11, 1956.

Gifted photographers enter the field

Most pho­tog­ra­phers with a sense of art about their work paid no at­ten­tion to rock & roll for the first ten or so years of its emer­gence into pop­ular cul­ture. There are few im­ages from the ’50s or early ’60s that we con­sider iconic: the photo of Elvis in his gold lame suit taken in Feb­ruary 1957 and sev­eral stills from the Jail­house Rock dance scene rank with the Robertson photo.

We had to wait until the image of four young British mu­si­cians staring starkly out from the cover of the MEET THE BEA­TLES album in late 1963 be­fore we had an­other image as iconic as the Elvis im­ages. By the end of the ’60s, sev­eral gifted pho­tog­ra­phers had en­tered the field and amazing photos were taken on a reg­ular basis.

Elvis on stage, legs spread, eyes closed, mouth open in song is rock’s most iconic image. Click To Tweet

The most iconic rock & roll photograph of Elvis Presley was shot by Red Robertson in July 1956.

FEA­TURED IMAGE: Prior to the ex­plo­sion of in­terest in rock LPs in the mid-1960s, most pop al­bums came and went after a few months in re­tail racks around the country. But LPM-1254 stayed in those racks year after year, gaining a new lease on life in 1961 when it was reis­sued as LSP-1254(e) in RCA Vic­tor’s new Elec­tron­i­cally Re­processed Stereo.


One of the most iconic rock & roll photographs was of Elvis posing in his gold suit shot in February 1957.

POST­SCRIP­TU­ALLY: This is the first of three inter-related ar­ti­cles based as they are on methods that were em­ployed by Colonel Parker and RCA Victor to pro­mote Elvis in 1956.



1   In its orig­inal use as a branch of art his­tory, iconog­raphy “studies the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, de­scrip­tion, and the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the con­tent of im­ages: the sub­jects de­picted, the par­tic­ular com­po­si­tions and de­tails used to do so, and other el­e­ments that are dis­tinct from artistic style.” (Wikipedia)

Merriam-Webster de­fines icon as “an ob­ject of un­crit­ical de­vo­tion.” This is laugh­able as Presley may be the most crit­i­cized pop­ular artist of the past sixty years!

Merriam-Webster de­fines iconic as “widely rec­og­nized and well-established.” As de­fined here, it is an un­der­state­ment: Presley is one of the most well-known per­sons in the world! Say the name Elvis any­where in the world and the people know ex­actly who you are talking about—regardless of the lan­guage they speak!

Merriam-Webster de­fines iconog­raphy as “the tra­di­tional or con­ven­tional im­ages or sym­bols as­so­ci­ated with a sub­ject and es­pe­cially a re­li­gious or leg­endary sub­ject.” As Elvis is as close to a “re­li­gious or leg­endary sub­ject” as rock & roll has pro­duced and prob­ably ever will pro­duce, iconog­raphy is an apt word for ref­er­ence to this photo.

The Free Dic­tio­nary de­fines icono­graphic as the “pic­to­rial il­lus­tra­tion of a sub­ject.” This also works as this photo of Elvis al­most sums up the first few years of rock & roll—its raw­ness, its di­rect­ness, its sim­plicity, and its youth.

De­spite all of this fame and for­tune, Elvis Presley may also be the most mis­un­der­stood and under-appreciated artist of the past sixty years.

2   The de­ci­sion to crop the photo and show Elvis from the waist up made the cover more eye-catching. And al­most as im­por­tant as the photo is the let­tering: ELVIS in pink let­ters and PRESLEY in green. These de­ci­sions and this work were done by one or more per­sons in RCA’s graphic de­part­ment. Alas, these per­sons will prob­ably re­main for­ever nameless.

3   In the 1970s and ’80s, sev­eral en­ter­prising in­di­vid­uals filled that gap by de­signing and man­u­fac­turing pic­ture sleeves for all the Elvis Sun and RCA Victor 45s is­sued without them. For more in­for­ma­tion, refer to “Elvis Presley Bootleg Pic­ture Sleeves 1954–1956.”


2 thoughts on “the world’s most famous and iconic rock & roll photograph”

  1. This and the gold suit Elvis are the two most im­por­tant im­ages in rock n roll history.Both were used on my two fa­vorite Elvis albums.


Leave a Comment