Before the sideburns and the spangled Vegas jumpsuit, back when he was the future King of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis Aaron Presley was the wild card from Tupelo, Miss., a man with a honeycomb baritone and hip-swaggering sex appeal about to perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Presley's historic performance on Sept. 9, 1956, at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, absent Sullivan himself (he was recovering from a car accident) and accompanied by backing band the Jordanaires, blasted out to 60 million TV viewers. They watched King Creole croon "Don't Be Cruel" and "Love Me Tender," the infamous camera a little too careful in shooting Presley above his gyrating hips.
Distinctly candid and intimate images during hallmark 1956 and 1957 CBS appearances capture Presley in scenes of fired-up, lip-quivering showmanship, but also in quieter, rarer backstage moments. They'll be on view from Oct. 10 through Feb. 2 in the Cornell Museum of Art exhibition "Elvis: Grace and Grit." The traveling display shows a 21-year-old on the cusp of greatness, which is sure to be a draw for museumgoers for reasons that prompt company founder Vickie Rehberg to blush.
"He was extremely gorgeous," says Rehberg, whose 35 large-format prints come from the CBS Photo Archive. "I really hate to say the cliche of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, but to me, you know, that's the draw. You see the screaming female fans from behind the studio barricades, and he was obviously very talented, with a certain something that made you attracted to him."
A fleet of CBS photographers caught Presley on his Sept. 9, 1956, Oct. 28, 1956, and Jan. 8, 1957, appearances on "Ed Sullivan." One image freezes on Presley midpivot during his swinging come-on "Hound Dog," while others show his Jan. 28, 1956, performance and national TV debut on the Jackie Gleason-produced "Dorsey Brothers Stage Show." Shots reveal the nascent King posing on CBS' backstage lot, and looking contemplative as he combs back his hair in the presence of Sullivan and Presley's music promoter, Colonel Tom Parker.
"Today, photographers have to jump through more hoops, legal and otherwise, to gain this kind of backstage access," Cornell spokeswoman Melissa Carter says.
Paired with the photography show is the Cornell's companion memorabilia show "Flashback: A Retro Look at the '60s and '70s," consisting of artifacts donated by 25 South Florida collectors. Highlights include a Gibson acoustic dove guitar, identical to the 1969 custom Elvis played during the 1970s; a vinyl pressing of "Blue Suede Shoes; and Elvis pins and buttons.
Collector Phyllis Maas, of West Palm Beach, is loaning lava lamps and rare Beatles and Bee Gees albums, and considers herself more an admirer of Elvis' movies than his early career.
"I was too young! I was more into 'Love Me Tender,' and I remember we'd gather around the only black-and-white TV in the living room, waiting until the tubes lit up," Mass, 55, recalls. "He was the big heartthrob, even though I was 8 or 9, but I loved him."
Elvis: Grace and Grit
When: Thursday, Oct. 10, through Feb. 2
Where: Cornell Museum of Art and American Culture, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach
Contact: 561-243-7922 or DelrayCenterForTheArts.org