A tribute to William Speer
By Bob Pakes
In 1950’s Memphis, William N. Speer ran a Photography Studio at 1330 Linden Avenue. Black and white glamor shots were Speer’s speciality and his weapon of choice was the 8×10 Agfa Ansco View camera we see below, a model that was in production until 1939.
Speer made use of what is referred to as ‘Rembrandt lighting’, a technique in which overhead spotlights cast downward shadows on the artist’s subject. In his photographs, Speer avoided happy faces
as much as possible: “I don’t usually take smiling jackass pictures.
If you’re looking at a person with a smile, all you see is the smile.
The smile kills the whole thing. The picture is in the eyes”.
In July 1955, a 20 year old Elvis Presley arrived at William Speer’s doorstep. He was sent by his manager, Bob Neal, to have some photos taken that could be used in the promotion of the rising young star. The session produced eleven portrait shots that over the years have obtained an iconic status.
Elvis’ photo session at Speer’s Studio, has often been called the first professional shoot Elvis has ever done. But at least four professional photo moments/shoots predate the Speer session, and photos from two of these sessions were used as promotional tools by Bob Neal. In other words, the Speer photo session produced the third set of official Elvis Presley publicity photos.
Soon after Elvis’ photo session had taken place, also Elvis’ parents, Vernon and Gladys Presley, as well as girlfriend Barbara Hearn, would have their portraits taken by William Speer.
Two of Speer’s photographs of Elvis were chosen to headline a promo campaign that would soon swell to extraordinary proportion. One of these photos would even become the most reproduced Elvis photo of all time. This photo, dubbed the folded hands photo, was also used on a very large scale by The Elvis Presley Fan Club, music publishers Hill & Range, and by Elvis Presley Enterprises.
In 1956, Speer turned the folded hands photo into the colorized painting that can be seen in many of the photos that were taken at Audubon Drive that year. And in 1964, one of Speer’s photos of Vernon and Gladys was colorized by him in a similar fashion.
The image of William Speer we see to the right, was taken in 1967.
In this topic, we’ll take a look at Speer’s photo sessions of the Presley family, before we dive into the many variations that were issued of the folded hands promotional photo, while we’ll also present examples of how this photo was put to work by Bob Neal, Tom Parker, Hill & Range and Elvis Presley Enterprises. Lastly, we’ll follow the trails of the colorized paintings of Elvis and his parents.
The William Speer photo sessions (1955)
Elvis arrived at the session in a white sports jacket that he wanted to wear in the pictures. To the right we see the first two photos of the shoot.
Speer’s wife, Vacil, then suggested Elvis take the jacket off since the bright white color gave his face a washed-out look, resulting in the four pics below.
Speer now felt he had what was needed and was about to end the session …
Below we see the final five pics of the session.
When Elvis first entered Speer’s studio, he was still a complete unknown to the photographer, but Speer knew right away there was something special about Elvis. “He wasn’t like anybody”, Speer said, “He had an electric charge, an animal magnetism”. And even though Elvis was shy, it was obvious to Speer he very much liked being photographed, and according to Speer it was this desire that made Elvis so photogenic.
When the photos were then developed, all eleven were razor sharp and not one photo was lost. “He came off that dead film like dynamite”, Speer said. The photos of a smiling Elvis were a rarity for a Speer photo, and Elvis didn’t like to present himself like that either. “He didn’t like smiles”, Speer said, “He liked the glowering look”. The shirtless photos made Elvis feel a bit embarrassed, and when Speer first showed him these, he quickly remarked, “These have got to go!”.
Photos 1 and 6 would eventually be used for promotional purposes. Both handpicked by Elvis. And he doesn’t smile in either of them.
Shortly after Elvis’ photo session, also his parents visited Speer.
As mentioned, Speer didn’t usually take “smiling jackass pictures”, but here we have four photos of Gladys and Vernon, and there are smiles everywhere. This is especially remarkable since Gladys hardly ever smiles in any of the 1950’s photos. Could it be that Speer had quickly picked up on the sadness inside Elvis’ mother and therefore chose to capture her in a happy state of mind?
Even though these photos were probably intended for private use only, they eventually were used in Elvis related mags and articles.
Elvis returned to Speer’s studio to have some portrait shots of his girlfriend, Barbara Hearn. During this meeting, Speer thinks he may have offended Elvis. According to Speer, while he was concentrating on photographing Barbara, Elvis was in the next room and began singing, when Speer said, “Stop the racket! I’m trying to take a picture”. After that, Speer never met Elvis again.
The photos Speer took of Elvis, soon ended up in magazines and in promo ads, while one photo was sold by the millions as a publicity still. And as mentioned, also the photos of Elvis’ parents, even though initially not intended to be used commercially, soon found their way to articles and magazines. The photos of Barbara on the other hand, remained private, as a result of which these have become hard to locate. We can, however, spot Barbara’s portrait shots in some of the photos that were taken at Audubon Drive since Elvis had two of these framed. The October 1956 photo to the right, is an example of this. Please scroll down this page to see a second Speer portrait of Barbara at Audubon.
The folded hands photo
Bob Neal had photos 1 and 6 printed in the 8″ x 10″ format, which was (and still is) the standard size for publicity photos. Unlike Elvis’ earlier promo pics, a contact address was added to the front of the photos: 160 Union Ave, Memphis, Tenn., the address of Bob Neal’s office. The very first variation of the folded hands photo that became available commercially, is presented to the right.
Debuting in early September 1955, the two photos were sold in great numbers at Elvis’ concerts and sent out to members of the Elvis Presley Fan Club by Bob’s wife, Helen.
Of the two, the folded hands photo quickly proved to be the more popular among Elvis fans, and within a few months, Bob Neal had ran out of supply of the fans’ favorite photo. However, by January 1956, also the second promo photo was completely sold out.
The number of photos Bob Neal anticipated on to sell, simply did not correspond with Elvis’ rapidly increasing popularity as well as the growing demand for Elvis souvenirs. This was a problem Bob’s successor would never run into.
Under Tom Parker’s reign, the folded hands photo became available in four different sizes (in 2.5″ x 3.5″, in 5″ x 7″, in 8″ x 10″, and in 11″ x 14″) and it was mass-produced by two different companies on both coasts of America at the same time. By the Summer of 1956, the folded hands photo had flooded the teenage market like no other photo before it.
To the right we have the 8″ x 10″ and 11″ x 14″ variations of the folded hands photo that were produced by Moss Photo Service in New York. Parker is holding the 11″ x 14″ variation in the image we see to the left.
Below to the right we see another Moss variation of the photo.
When a new member would join the fan club, it would receive the ‘personal note’ from Elvis that is presented to the right as well as the fan club membership card that is shown above.
Official fan club buttons were produced in a wide variety of sizes and colors, an example of which can be seen to the left.
While a different photo would be chosen as the face of the Elvis Presley Enterprises merchandise campaign in late 1956, the folded hands photo did pop up on some of the products that were licensed by EPE. To the left we see bubble gum card nr. 35, and to the right we have a bobby pin tray.
Also Hill & Range, Elvis’ music publishing company, made extensive use of the folded hands photo for their Elvis sheet music, of which we see a small selection below.
The second Speer photo
From March 1956 on, the second photo was printed in the same four sizes (in 2.5″ x 3.5″, in 5″ x 7″, in 8″ x 10″, and in 11″ x 14″) as the 1956 variations of the folded hands photo, but in far lesser quantities. As a result of this, original 1956 prints of the second photo are much harder to find than 1956 prints of the extremely popular folded hands photos, while Bob Neal’s two 1955 publicity photos are equally hard to trace.
Similar to the folded hands photo, also the second Speer photo embarked on an incredible career during the 50’s. The photo was especially used on a large scale in newspaper ads of all sorts, but it also ended up on record covers and sheet music, not just in the USA, but in other parts of the world as well, as can be seen below.
Below to the right we have Canadian DJ Red Robinson holding, what appears to be, the variation of the photo that we see below.
To the left we see a June 1956 ad for Elvis’ shows at the Mosque Theatre in Richmond, VA. To the right we have a November 1956 ad for the Elvis Presley phonographs that were licensed by EPE. The promo ad below appeared in trade mags throughout 1956.
While the folded hands photo became the most used image of Elvis on sheet music in the USA, the second Speer photo was the most heavily used image of Elvis on sheet music in the UK. Below we see some examples of this.
Below we see a rare 1956 EPE photo-wallet.
This album was sold at concert venues and became known as the first Elvis tour book, even though Elvis was only on four of the album’s ten pages.
The album was available for a very short while before being replaced by the successful Mr. Dynamite album (the first all Elvis album) in April 1956.
The Elvis painting at Audubon Drive (1956)
In quite a few of Alfred Wertheimer’s July 1956 photos at Audubon Drive, we can spot a painted version of the folded hands photo. According to Wertheimer, Elvis’ mother liked this photo so much that she had it hand colored, printed onto canvas, and put in a gilded frame. Also a light was installed above the painting. The hand-coloring, as well as the framing, was done by William Speer.
Gladys might have become aware of the option to have black and white photos hand-colored, when she and her husband visited Speer’s studio the previous year. And when the Presley family then moved in to their new home on Audubon Drive in March 1956, Gladys must have felt the time was right for the favorite photo of her son to dominate the living room.
Here we have two more Audubon pics that feature the painting. Below we see Elvis’ parents, seemingly under the spell of the painting, and to the right, Elvis plays host to service station owner Clarence Harwell who came to offer his apologies for an incident at his station that invloved Elvis and two station attendants. In these pics, also notice the two framed Barbara Hearn portraits.
The Elvis painting in Parker’s office (1956)
The photo to the right was taken in late November 1956, when Elvis visited Parker’s office in Madison, TN. Behind Elvis we see, what appears to be, the Audubon Drive painting. But when closely comparing this painting with the one at Audubon, some slight differences can be noticed. The painting in Parker’s office was framed a bit higher and more to the left. Another difference, is that the bottom right corner of Parker’s painting includes Speer’s signature (please scroll down to the painting of Elvis’ parents, on which his signature, “Wm. Speer ’55”, can be seen more clearly), while a signature is not present on the Audubon Drive painting.
So, two copies of the painting exist. It seems likely that Parker ordered his copy shortly after Speer had produced the original painting, and to which Speer then added his signature.
The Elvis painting at Graceland (since 1982)
It’s unknown what became of Parker’s painting, but the Audubon painting has been on display at Graceland since it first opened its doors. Like many of the artifacts, the painting has been relocated a few times. In the pic to the right, it’s hanging in the trophy room, but Elvis’ parents’ bedroom appears to be its current location.
Also one of Speer’s photos of Gladys and Vernon is on permanent display at Graceland. The photo in the frame to the left, has been part of the living room for many decades.
The Vernon and Gladys painting (1964)
Over seven years after Speer had colorized the folded hands photo of Elvis, Parker commissioned Speer to produce a similar work of one of Speer’s portraits of Elvis’ parents. In March 1964, Parker presented the painting that we see to the left as a gift to Elvis. An interesting detail is that by this time, Vernon had been married nearly four years to his second wife, Dee Stanley.
In the lower left of the painting we find Speer’s signature, “Wm. Speer ’55”. The back of the frame, is signed as follows: “To Elvis, with our best. From Mrs. Parker and the Colonel. March 12, 1964”.
In an online 2012 Heritage auction, this painting sold for $2,500.
The letters below, sent by Parker to Speer after he had received the painting, include interesting details about the transaction.
The Speer photos live on!
Elvis Blue was first released in 1983 by Starcall Records, then re-released by RCA Victor in 1984.
Similarly, The First Live Recordings was released by The Music Works in 1983, and then by RCA in 1984.
The Speer painting was also chosen for the cover of the 5-track 10″ EP to the right. This anniversary EP was only released in the UK.
In 1993, a calendar titled Innocence was issued. It included Speer’s eleven photos of Elvis plus one of his parents.
In 1987, the album to the right, Great Hits Of 1956-57, saw the light of day, courtesy of RCA Victor and Reader’s Digest.
Since Parker had flooded the market with the folded hands photo, Elvis would often find himself drowning in a sea of autograph hunters holding up their copies of the Speer photo, as we can see to the left. Several variations of the photo are on display here.
When RCA Victor released Elvis Presley’s historic Sun recordings on a fantastic 2 CD set in 1999, only a Speer photo could have been chosen to grace its cover.
Then, in 2015, perhaps the nicest tribute to Speer’s artistry, came in the shape of the second official US Elvis Presley postage stamp.
Imagine having to take a photo of a legendary portrait specialist like William Speer. This thought must have gone through Thomas Busler’s head a million times before he took the July 2002 photo to the left. In this image, Speer holds his favorite Elvis photograph.
Mr. Speer died in December of 2006 at the age of 89. Two months later, Vacil, his wife of 57 years, followed him. William Speer’s art was not just given a prominent place in the Presley’s Audubon home, it has become part of rock ‘n’ roll history. And 65 years after the fact, Speer’s iconic work continues to offer us a rare window deep into the soul of that 20 year old boy from Tupelo.
The quotes that are used in this article, were all taken from the interviews the following two people had with William Speer:
– Marianne Costaninou (The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 1987)
– Michael Lollar (The Commercial Appeal, August 2002
Michael Lollar was also the driving force behind the highly recommended book Elvis Presley’s Memphis (2010).
Credit and thanks to Chris Giles for (most of) the sheet music.
The photo to the left is one of the many amazing shots Speer took of Johnny Cash in the 1950’s. The Bear Family label dedicated a Cash album to Speer’s work with their release of Unseen Cash.
For a very interesting video interview with William Speer about his experience with Elvis, please check out Elvis Innocence.
Speer ran his Memphis studio, which was located across the street from Crump Stadium, for circa 30 years. Eventually, a parking garage was built on the studio’s site and it no longer exists.