Like a lot of people visiting Memphis for the first time this week, Barbara Gray is coming to pay tribute to Elvis Presley on the 35th anniversary of his passing.
Unlike everyone else, Gray has a unique connection to the King — though it would take five decades for the truth of her identity to be revealed.
For half a century, Gray was known only as "the mystery woman," the girl playfully touching tongues with Elvis in the iconic 1956 photo taken by photographer Alfred Wertheimer and unofficially titled "The Kiss."
"That picture kept coming up in my life, but it took a long time for me to say who I was," says Gray, now 76, whose identity was confirmed last year by Elvis author Alanna Nash in a Vanity Fair magazine story. Gray will make several public appearances as part of Elvis Week, starting on Sunday.
Back in 1956, Gray was a young divorcee known as Bobbi Owens, and, ironically, she was not a rock-and-roll fan. "I followed big bands, and pop singers; I liked Frank Sinatra," she says. "I'd never seen or heard of Elvis."
Presley, still in the early stages of breaking nationally, was playing a show in Charleston, S.C. Gray was hanging out with a group of girlfriends, and one of them dared her to call Pres- ley's hotel and chat up the fledgling star. "They put me up to calling the hotel,' says Gray, who rang right through to Presley. "We had a really good conversation; we enjoyed each other's company on the phone."
As it transpired, Gray was on her way to Richmond, Va., the next day to see her aunt and then to Philadelphia to meet up with a boyfriend. Presley was on his way to Richmond as well for a concert. He invited Gray to come to the show the following evening, and told her he'd send his cousin to pick her up and drive her.
Arriving the following day at the coffee shop of the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Gray finally got her first glimpse of the future King. "Elvis was sitting at the counter, and he turned around, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, he's gorgeous!'" says Gray, laughing. "I didn't know what to do. I was very nervous. I didn't expect what I found."
What Gray also found was that a certain young photographer from New York, Wertheimer, was shadowing Presley, taking publicity shots for his record label, RCA.
Wertheimer remained discreetly in the background, snapping away as Presley checked out of his hotel, and traveled with Gray to the venue. Backstage in the stairwell of the Mosque Theatre, Wertheimer's camera caught a private moment between the couple.
"I don't think either one of us were aware of him being there taking pictures in the hall," Gray says. "It was dark, and we were rather intimate, shall we say."
"(Elvis) kept trying to kiss me and kid around with me. I was trying to tell him that I'd just gone through a divorce recently, that I had a boyfriend I was going to see in Philadelphia," she says. "I think that made it all the more interesting for him to want to get to know me better. Of course, I didn't know Al was taking photos of all that."
The morning after the show, Gray and Presley parted ways at the train station. He asked her to come with him to New York, where he would be performing on "The Steve Allen Show." But Gray declined and went to Philadelphia instead to see her beau. Elvis, of course, went on to become the biggest star in the country.
Wertheimer's photo of "The Kiss" was published later that year in the National Enquirer. Gray was unaware of it until she got a call from her friend, the singer Pat Boone. "Pat called me and said, 'Why is there a photo of you kissing my big rival?' recalls Gray, chuckling.
But aside from that episode, Gray's passing moment with Presley would be largely forgotten for the next 20 years. She would remarry a couple more times, to an Army pilot and later a ballet dancer, and move around among California, Puerto Rico and Washington.
After Presley's death in 1977, there was a surge of interest in Wertheimer's photos of the young Elvis, especially "The Kiss." Wertheimer would remain demure about the details of the woman in the photo, preferring to let the wonderfully evocative image stand on it own.
Shortly after Elvis' death, Gray tried to contact Wertheimer and identify herself, but he dismissed her claims.
Thirty-five more years would pass until an exhibit of Wertheimer's Elvis images opened in late 2010 at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. By that time, rumors had circulated that the woman in "The Kiss" had died.
Gray, now settled back in Charleston, was home one day when her husband came in with a copy of a USA Today story about Wertheimer, with 'The Kiss" pictured on its cover. "My husband said, 'You need to get your name on that picture; you need to let the world know it's you, that you're not dead,'" Gray recalls. "So I decided, 'The heck with it. I'm gonna get in touch with Al Wertheimer again, prove that it's me and at least put my name on there.'"
Over the years, many people had falsely come forward claiming to be the mystery woman in the photo. But Wertheimer had been sitting on a secret. In the photo, Presley is actually standing on a step below the woman — which would make her considerably shorter than Presley.
When Gray reached Wertheimer via e-mail, she was able to verify her height (4'11") and other details about the day, and compare current photos of herself with the other images Wertheimer had shot of her in 1956. Gray was telling the truth.
Elvis historian Alanna Nash, who wrote "Let's Play House," the 2010 book about Presley's romantic life, got wind of Gray's tale. Nash's piece in Vanity Fair finally revealed Gray's identity and put an end to the mystery of the woman in "The Kiss."
Since then, Gray has enjoyed a small flush of fame. She's appeared on NBC's "Today" show and made appearances at a couple of photo exhibits with Wertheimer, where she's been enthusiastically received. "It great to be loved by people you didn't even know," she says.
This year, Elvis Presley Enterprises invited Gray to appear as part of Elvis Week proceedings. Gray will sign autographs and greet fans at the "Collecting the King Record & Memorabilia Show" on Sunday through Wednesday at The Peabody's Continental Ballroom. She'll also be appearing on a panel with Wertheimer on Wednesday morning at Graceland.
"I'm excited, but I'm nervous about it, too," Gray says of all the attention. "I'm having to think back 56 years ago and try and remember everything that went on. But I've enjoyed being a little part of this history."
Barbara Gray during Elvis Week
Gray will appear at Collecting the King Record and Memorabilia Show Sunday through Wednesday in the Continental Ballroom at The Peabody, 149 Union. Admission is free. For more information, go to collectingtheking.com.
She’ll also be a part of “Conversations on Elvis: Behind the Camera” with Priscilla Presley, Alfred Wertheimer and others at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Graceland, 3734 Elvis Presley Blvd. Tickets: $20; call 800-238-2000 or 901-332-3322; online at Elvis.com