Electric afternoon in Cleveland

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An exclusive exhibition, showing for the first time in London, offers rarely seen vintage prints of exquisite images captured by Lew Allen. Shot in Cleveland and New York from 1956 to ‘58, Allen’s work features Elvis Presley and a stellar assemblage of early rock ’n’ roll icons such as The Everly Brothers, Bobby Darin, Frankie Avalon and Buddy Holly.

His lens remains one of the last to document those early days when rock ‘n’ roll was taking its first steps into the light. Allen’s remarkable work takes you back to a time before these trailblazing rock pioneers rose to legendary status.

The ground breaking show curates a comprehensive selection of photography prints that delves into a wonderful and nostalgic bygone era, capturing the meteoric rise of the ‘King of Rock’.

The year was 1956, a defining year for Elvis Presley, finding the singer on the brink of superstardom - in January that year he had his first chart topper, Heartbreak Hotel. Swiftly followed by his march to the top of the album charts in (ahem) March.

The landmark gig that Lew Allen captured on film took place a couple of months after Presley’s world debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, and just days after the premiere of his first film Love me Tender.

Elvis influenced, and paved the way for, the early Rock Party tours, when musicians travelled by bus, helped each other creatively, carried their own stage outfits and equipment and were backed by the local orchestra.

These tours were also the first truly integrated shows where the artists travelled together regardless of race or background - and a 17 year old Lew Allen was lucky enough to be along for the ride on those Rock Party buses, often the only photographer aboard.

A young Presley was due to play live at the Cleveland Arena in Ohio and an amateur photographer (Lew Allen) whose only professional experience was working on the school newspaper at Cleveland Heights High School, was invited to capture him.

It was an electric afternoon and Elvis performed to 14,000 people, rocking the building for more than an hour. A labour strike at major newspapers that day meant that Lew Allen happened to be the only photographer present, witnessing and, more importantly, documenting the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll right in front of his perfectly poised lens.

1950s America was highly conservative, needless to say Elvis Presley’s performance and liberal use of ‘below hips movements’ was considered immoral and pornographic. When the tour left town, Allen would get into trouble with parents if he sold a picture of Elvis to their daughters.

Which was curious, because back then, says Allen: ”Elvis was a church-going, gentle, kind, considerate, back-woods country kid. Polite beyond words. That is how I remember him, because of the way he interacted with me. That was my Elvis.”

Lew Allen studied with photographers Minor White, Ralph Hattersley and took lectures from Ansel Adams and other noted photographers. His work has been presented at the National Portrait Gallery in London - in conjunction with a BBC documentary featuring his story of Elvis. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery has selected his work for their permanent collection. ■

Proud Galleries presents: Elvis & The Birth of Rock. Tuesday 3 May to Saturday 25 June 2022,Free Entry, 32 John Adam Street, London. Tues to Sat 11am to 6pm/Closed Sun & Mon

©Lew Allen at Proud Galleries

“Looking back, I realise I captured the birth of rock’n’roll”

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