By Ger Rijff
It was a sundaymorning tradition at our parents home for years. After we all had breakfast together, my brother Lodewijk would get the Elvis records from our bedroom, and I collected all the related Elvis magazines and scrapbooks we both had been saving up for years. He would sit next to the radio (with build-in record player) and I would lay on the living room floor, paging thru the stack of items in front of me. I would always pick The Elvis Yearbook ’60 as my first choice, an American Elvis photo magazine special, crammed with material that focused on the years 1956-57.
Even back then, I’m talking 1962, the sideburned Elvis, by far, was my firm favourite. In the Elvis Monthly (my brother had subscribed to this little mag, back in 1961) photos from his recent movies Follow That Dream and Kid Galahad showed us a very different looking guy from the one we’ve grown up with since 1957. It wasn’t an improvement. Puffy and with a shabby haircut, as he was pictured on almost every photo page.
Recently we had received a copy of Operation Elvis, ordered thru Monthly. It was a new paperback title, containing a special ‘bonus’ photo section of 10 or 12 images. My copy, still saved since 1962, is incomplete. So I can’t be sure about the exact number of bonus photos. But dear lawdy miss clawdy, what great pictures they are! All from 1956, and one or two, from the Army years.
But it wasn’t just the photographs I would study each and every time I would browse thru Operation Elvis, it also contained a selection of black & white cartoons that had really grabbed my imagination. The one of him on stage, talking to Gladys, while hysterical girls jump down from the balconies, is a true piece of classic cartoon art!
At the time I wasn’t aware Operation Elvis had been out before as a hardcover edition, back in 1960. Two different hardcover editions (as shown on top of this page) to be exact. The first in the US, in February of 1960, and the 2nd (the UK edition) in October of that same year. Both sporting different cartoon covers by one and the same artist: Dedini.
Elvis Joins The Army (1958)
The fabulous levels of hysteria surrounding this event have been reduced over time to a dry formula for creative decline. The fact was that Elvis had already succumbed to the Faustian embrace of former Hadacol patent medicine salesman ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, as well as signing the fateful movie deal which would condemn him to almost a decade in the creative wilderness, before the celebrated day on 24 March, 1958 when he became US 53310761.
Negotiating his own path through the swirling chaos of his own desires; the letters of fans who wrote begging for clippings from the haircut for which The King had paid 65c out of his own pocket; and the frantic attempts of his manager, the media and the State Department to manipulate events, specialist fourth class Elvis Aaron Presley went on to lay the ground rules for the modern culture of celebrity.
As the last line of Alan Levy’s fine 1960 account Operation Elvis puts it:
‘By pretending he was just like anybody else, the Army had demonstrated to the world The Importance of Being Elvis.’(The Observer, 2003)
Dedini (1921-2006) started his carreer at the Disney studio back in the 1940’s. Tired of not ever getting credits for his work, he packed it in and left the studio in the 1950’s to start working for Esquire magazine, and later on for Playboy magazine.
But it was not only the great Dedini artwork that got me hooked on the 1962 pocket book edition of Operation Elvis. The ‘bonus’ photo section presented some of the coolest 50’s images ever seen by me! I had no idea where they originated from, date and location were unknown, and no information was to be found in the contents of the pocket book.
Two shots that really stood out for me were the one of him combing his greasy quiff standing in front of an open door. And the other one captured Elvis on stage strangling a stand-up microphone! It would take almost 25 years before I would found out where these photos were taken and who the photographer was.
By sheer coincidence, in the pages of one of the many post 1977 so called ‘tribute’ photo magazines from the U.S., a special photo section was featured on a photographer named Jay B. Leviton. He had covered Elvis during his August 1956 Florida tour. I recognised the images right away as being from the same location as the ones in Operation Elvis!
The name of the photo agency representing Jay B. was Black Star in New York. I rang them asking for more information: how many different ones were on file, and would their be a possibility for me to do a photobook on Leviton’s Elvis images?! “You’re from The Netherlands? And you want to do an Elvis Presley photobook?”. My questions had totally surprised Jay’s agent on the other side of the line. But after a while it had sunk in, and he understood I was making a serious bizniz offer. After several weeks a large yellow envelope was delivered to me at home. It was from Black Star in New York. Enclosed was a stack of of A-3 sized xerox pages with a couple of hundred Elvis images, from so called contact sheets. A letter was included from Mr. Leviton himself that acompanied the xerox pages. He asked if there was anything photowise to my liking …
With special thanks to Chris Giles for his help.