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.
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.”
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
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!
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
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 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.
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.
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.”