Elvis rocked Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium 60 years ago - The Buffalo News
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Elvis rocked Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium 60 years ago

Elvis Presley stepped onto Buffalo Memorial Auditorium's stage 60 years ago, wearing a shimmering gold lamé jacket, black pants and gold shoes.

The Army drafted Elvis eight months later, and after his discharge, the rawness that characterized his early career would become more a flicker than a flame.

But not on April 1, 1957.

Elvis stepped onto the spotlit stage, gripped the microphone in his right hand and waited more than 3 minutes for the crowd to quiet down enough for him to begin.

"Elvis Presley – the stuff of which some teenage dreams are made – swept Buffalo like a whirlwind Monday evening," Buffalo Evening News reviewer Sylvan Fox's review began.

"For 30 minutes, the gyrating, grimacing guitarist-singer slumped and waved his way about the small stage in Memorial Auditorium, bringing his predominantly feminine audience to a fever pitch of excitement, which expressed itself in incredibly ear-splitting screams and a fervor of arm-waving," Fox wrote.

Robert L. Smith, a photographer for the Buffalo Evening News, captured the spectacle.

Smith took 26 photographs that night. One became the most iconic photograph of the young Elvis, reproduced on everything from posters and coffee mugs to Graceland shopping bags and Visa cards. The photo features Elvis singing, with a Gibson guitar under his right arm, left arm raised, toes bent and legs apart.

One of the photographs taken that night by Smith has never before been made public– until today, in the print edition of The Buffalo News. A microphone in his left hand, Elvis is on his knees, just out of the reach of an outstretched autograph-seeking teenager holding paper and pencil.

Sixty years ago in Buffalo, Elvis Presley held her hand

"I heard it was the only picture of Elvis kneeling on stage," Smith, now 86, said Friday. "After that concert, he wore tight-fitting pants, which didn't allow him to kneel down anymore."

Smith agreed to allow the photo to be published in the newspaper but not online, to avoid the image being pirated.

Tickets cost $2 to $3.50 that night to see "the King of Rock 'n' Roll," blocks from a movie theater where James Dean starred in "Giant."

The set list included "Heartbreak Hotel," "I Was the One," "I've Got a Woman," "Don't Be Cruel," and "That's Where Heartaches Begin."

"For a climactic close," the reviewer wrote, Presley performed "You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog," in which he "moved violently about the stage."

Screams galore

It was hard to hear Elvis that night. Swiveling hips that caused TV networks to only show him from the waist up elicited loud screams and shrieks from the bobby-sox set.

"The turnstile count of the crowd was 10,375, and they were mostly teenagers screaming at the limit of their physical power," Fox wrote. "Elvis could barely be heard as he went through his repertoire of inimitable numbers ... but whether he could be heard or not didn't make too much difference.

"The thousands of young girls, and a scattering of boys and adults, had come not to hear a singer. They had come to see Elvis, to touch him if possible and to get his signature on a piece of paper to cherish always -- or at least until another idol comes along."

Later, the reviewer referred to Elvis' performance as a "vast emotional catharsis for thousands of teenagers who have found in this 22-year-old former truck driver something that answers in a vague and ephemeral way, their longings and strivings."

Before the concert, Elvis held a press conference backstage. He was dressed in a red jacket, frilly silver shirt, dark pants and the gold shoes he would wear onstage.

Elvis answered most questions with "Yes, sir" and "No, sir."

In response to a reporter's question, Elvis, sitting on a table with one foot dangling, was asked if he had an adverse effect on his fans.

"I don't think I'm causing them to do anything wrong," Elvis said. "They scream and yell and have fun."

At the right place

Smith, then a 27-year-old photographer, was there that night at the invitation of a Buffalo police detective. He was asked to take backstage photographs of the detective's nieces, who were among a few dozen contest winners picked to be photographed with the rock 'n' roller.

"I said, 'Who the heck is Elvis?' Smith recalled. "I had no idea who he was. I sure found out later."

Smith brought his two teenage sisters-in-law with him to also pose for pictures. Some girls left lipstick marks on Elvis' cheeks, the reviewer reported.

Smith only had 13 holders for his "standard press photographer's camera," which allowed two pictures for each. That limited him to 26 photographs. After the backstage photos, and several shots of teens erupting with screams after getting glimpses of Elvis before the show, that left eight unused photos.

Then something unexpected happened.

"Elvis came up to me, and asked me if I would like to photograph him up on stage," Smith said.

"Sure, I would," he answered.

"At that point, I was just starting my career in photography. I was excited. I had never seen anything like this before -- I had never been to a concert before," Smith said.

The photographer stood on the edge of the stage, directly in front of Elvis, for two or three songs, he recalled.

"I remember the screaming," he said. "The girls were on the edge of the stage, reaching up for autographs, and I'm up there, in front of Elvis."

Smith said he would like to be able to say he knew he had the iconic photo in his sights when he took it. But that wasn't the case.

Darkroom surprise

It was only when Smith went to the paper to develop the film that he knew he had something exceptional.

"I could see it was a good photograph, and I wanted to share it with somebody. So although I wasn't assigned to the job, I turned it in and they used it in the next day's paper," Smith said.

He sent a print with his copyright stamped on the back to Col. Tom Parker, Elvis' manager, hoping to sell him a copy. Smith never heard back from Parker.

Fast forward 43 years.

That's when a friend of Smith's – an Elvis fan – saw a blow-up of the photo in Smith's office. The friend said it was a widely used image, which led Smith to visit and eventually negotiate a payment from Elvis Presley Enterprises, which manages Graceland, where Elvis lived.

The settlement for using the photograph was in the "hundreds of thousands of dollars," Smith said.

The agreement also allowed him to sell autographed posters of the famous image.

Around the same time, Smith saw a blow-up of the photograph upon entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The plaque said the photographer was unknown. After Smith offered proof he had taken the photo, the text panel was changed within a week to include his name.

The photo was a major achievement for the photographer, whose career at The News spanned nearly 40 years. He was also chief photographer for the Buffalo Bills. In 2015, Smith became the first photographer to be inducted into the Western New York Sports Hall of Fame.

After the show

After Elvis finished his last song at the Aud, he left the stage, ran down a ramp and into a waiting car, disappearing from view.

The rocker left behind "hundreds of disappointed fans," Fox wrote, many wearing "Elvis" buttons and shirts with his name on them.

"Some of the more than 175 police and auxiliaries managed to hold back the screaming girls who would not reconcile themselves to his disappearance," Fox wrote about the scene.

"One shouted to another, 'Did you touch him?'

"Another pointed out to a conference room and said, her voice tremulous, 'He was in that room.' "

Toward the end of his career, Elvis would return to Western New York a handful of times, returning to Memorial Auditorium on April 5, 1972, delighting fans in Niagara Falls on June 24, 1974, and again for two shows on July 13, 1975, at the International Convention Center, and a final time at Memorial Auditorium on June 25, 1976.

Fourteen months after that show, the King died at his Graceland mansion in Memphis.

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