FORT SMITH, Ark.— Years before Elvis Presley left the building a final time, an area man captured a unique side of the King of Rock and Roll.
Robert Mainer served alongside Presley in the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1958. Mainer, now a 77-year-old resident of Paris, took several photographs of Presley while watching him interact with fellow servicemen in between military duties.
“Elvis was a really shy person,” said Mainer. “If you talked to him in just a normal, everyday way, Elvis would talk to you all day long, but for those people who wanted to hang their arms around Elvis’ neck and yell ‘Hound Dog’ at him, well, he didn’t care for that at all.”
Mainer used a 1958 German-made Voitlander camera he purchased after entering the Army to candidly photograph Presley. Mainer’s photographs show Presley signing autographs and visiting with other Army members.
“I did get to see and hear Elvis sing and play guitar while he was with us in the Army,” said Mainer, who worked with weather balloons while in the Army. “It was just Elvis singing and playing a guitar — nobody else would play. We would just watch him and listen to him, and he did that quite a lot.”
All of these performances were on-the-spot, unceremonious events, he said. There never was a stage or a microphone at these musical incidents; only Presley’s acoustic guitar, voice and smile, Mainer said.
“Elvis sang ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ ‘Hound Dog,’ all of his stuff from that time period for us,” he said. “He’d be singing and playing for us, and we’d all have jeeps pulled up together or we’d be hanging out in bushes. Wherever we were, Elvis would sometimes sing and play.”
Presley was a better guitarist than many critics cared to admit back then, Mainer said.
“His guitar playing and his voice sounded just like the records,” he said. “Elvis sounded really good.”
Mainer said he initially was surprised that Presley, for the most part, refused to receive special treatment while in the Army.
“Elvis didn’t skip out on his duties,” he said. “There were times when Elvis would drive majors around in a jeep, but there were a lot of times when he would be doing things everybody else would be doing.
“Now Elvis did live off-base, because he being who he was, Elvis could afford a house,” Mainer added with a grin.
At times, Presley’s shy nature would veer into nervousness in public, he said.
“I noticed that Elvis’ fingernails were cut down to the quick, but that wasn’t from his guitar playing,” Mainer said. “Elvis was shy. He’d chew his fingernails and became nervous because of all the people coming up to him — those people yelling at him to sing ‘Hound Dog.’
“You wouldn’t believe how nervous and shy Elvis was when a lot of people would bother him,” he added before smiling.
Mainer, like several others, made it a point to never “bother” Presley during drills and down time alike.
“I never asked Elvis for an autograph for myself, but I did get Elvis to sign a photograph for my late wife, Pat,” he said. “Yeah, Elvis wasn’t shy with a guitar, but in a lot of ways, he really was just one of us.”
Mainer then laughed.
“You know, I got the same haircut Elvis got at Fort Chaffee,” he said while smiling.
When asked which of his Presley photographs was his favorite, Mainer quickly pointed to his photograph showing Presley looking at a fellow soldier. In the photo, which Mainer’s friends and relatives call “the money shot,” the rock-music icon is seen from the chest up, with his mouth almost set in Presley’s trademark, crooked smile.
“I didn’t have a camera before I went into the Army; I couldn’t afford one,” Mainer said with a laugh. “I just took that camera and took photographs. I learned how to take photographs just by using that camera. I just learned as I went along.”
Presley didn’t mind the presence of Mainer’s camera. The hard part for Mainer was manually setting his camera’s aperture size and shutter speed for each photograph.
“Using that camera was not like digital cameras today,” he said. “You had to do everything yourself back then with that camera. You even had to focus the camera yourself.”
Mainer now keeps his photographs of Presley and other photographs he took while in the Army in a thick, rectangular scrapbook, which he purchased while in Germany. Thin sheets of what look like rice paper carefully separate the pages from each other, preserving the photographs and making them appear as if they were taken just a few years back, rather than more than 50 years ago.
“I definitely prefer Elvis how he was while he was in the Army — younger and all — rather than the Elvis of the 1970s,” Mainer said. “Years later, Elvis wore those suits with the big collars, and he’d sweat on the scarves and stuff and give them to girls.”
Mainer then chuckled.
“Elvis was in all those movies in the 1960s, but those movies just didn’t seem to be very good,” he said before his voice took a serious tone. “I think Elvis did his best work back in the 1950s. I think the music he made in the 1950s was the best. It still sounds the best now.”
Mainer added that he felt sad when he first heard of Presley’s death in August 1977.
“Elvis Presley died at such a young age — he was only 42 at the time,” he said. “It makes you wonder what might have happened had (Presley’s manager) Col. Tom Parker not been around. Elvis might not have had all those pills, and he might not have died. Who knows? If Parker wasn’t there back then, Elvis might still be alive today.”