Robert William Dye helped run the family grain elevator construction business during the day, but at night he was on the town photographing everybody from Minnie Pearl to Elvis Presley.
One of Dye’s Navy buddies had been chief photographer aboard the USS Decker during World War II, and Dye learned enough from him that when he left the Navy he built his own darkroom.
His son, photo archivist Robert Wayne Dye, says his father was soon “a documentary photographer, but he didn’t realize it at the time.” Using a Brownie box camera, he shot only what he liked, including many of the celebrities who appeared in Memphis during the early 1950s.
Some of his shots of Elvis showed up last year on mugs, T-shirts and other merchandise licensed through Elvis Presley Enterprises, though Dye never made an effort to capitalize on photography.
In the 1950s, Dye had a family to raise, and he hated shooting weddings and the other traditional staples that paid the bills of professional photographers. Before joining the Navy, he had worked as a clarinetist in a Western swing band and a fingerprint analyst for the FBI. Later, when the grain elevator business slowed, he worked as a swimming pool installer.
Photography was “at least 98 percent a hobby for him,” says his widow, Jo Nell Dye.
It was mostly for fun when he went to the Overton Park Shell in 1955 intending to shoot country singer Webb Pierce. There for the first time he saw Elvis Presley perform. He continued to photograph Elvis, but only occasionally, for about four more years, says his son. By then, Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was making it too difficult for outside photographers to gain access to his “act.”
Dye’s other celebrity photographs included Pierce, Roy Acuff, fan dancer Sally Rand, wrestler Gorgeous George, guitarist Chet Atkins, Eddie Bond and bandleader Les Paul and his wife, singer Mary Ford. Like many others who met Elvis, Dye thought of the shy young singer “as just this good kid who would do anything for anybody,” according to his son.
His father had the same conclusion as Minnie Pearl when she showed up one night in the audience at Ellis Auditorium for a revue-type show that included Elvis. Dye had met Pearl, a major Grand Ole Opry star who had seen hundreds of acts come and go. She said of Elvis: “He’s going places. He’s really got it.”
Dye’s son says his father shot dozens more Elvis photographs, including one of Elvis giving actor Nick Adams a ride on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. “Nick Adams had shown Elvis around Hollywood, so Elvis showed Nick Adams around Memphis,” says Dye’s son.
His father finally tired of black and white photography about 1960 because it was “too time-consuming.” In 1985, he and his wife decided to convert their old darkroom to a greenhouse. In the room, they found boxes of old photographs labeled by subject, including an Elvis Presley box. Elvis had always been obliging. “With Elvis it was like, `Can I get your picture?’ and Elvis was like, `Sure, how do you want me?’ ” says Robert Wayne Dye.
His father died in 1994, but, during his illness, he agreed to sell his negatives to Graceland “for a five-figure” sum, which the son won’t specify.
The son says his father had been offered as much as $100,000 for his photographs from a Japanese source. “But my father said he wanted those photos to be here in Memphis where Elvis was and that he knew Graceland would take good care of them.”
His father kept the rights to actual photographs the family had printed from his negatives. With profits from the sale of the negatives, Dye says his father bought a riding lawnmower. “I got a Nikon camera, and my mom bought a car, a Honda.
“Nobody got a new Cadillac out of the deal.”by Michael Lollar, August 12th, 2004
Just one of many Dye shots
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