Elvis Presley at 21: Photos From Before He Was King

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The year 1956 was a turning point for Elvis Presley. Though he'd cut his first single in 1953, 1956 brought him his first number one hits—five total, including "Hound Dog" and "Love Me Tender"—and his first major television appearances.

Freelance journalist Alfred Wertheimer photographed Elvis during this pivotal year, following him from New York City to Virginia to his home in Memphis, Tennessee. Along the way, he captured the 21-year-old future king of rock 'n' roll in moments that showed just how much he was teetering on the brink between anonymity and superstardom: in some photos, he's able to walk into a hotel, sit at a lunch counter, or chat, shirtless, with his high school girlfriend, without attracting any attention from admirers. In others, Presley is reading a big stack of fan mail or signing autographs for enthralled young women.

Fifty-six of Werthheimer's photos from this period are on display as part of a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, "Elvis at 21." You can see a selection of them here:

"Elvis at 21, Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer" will be at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. until January 23, 2011. It will then travel to the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Penn (2-19-11 to 5-15-11), the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark (6-4-11 to 8-21-11), the Mobile Museum of Art in Mobile, Ala (9-10-11 to 12-4-11), the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Va (12-24-11 to 3-18-12), and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene, Kan (4-7-12 to 7-1-12).
See the full tour itinerary here.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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