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Recalling Pinellas

Elvis' concerts showed 1956 racial divide

As a St. Petersburg Times reporter from 1948 to 1965, Jerry Blizin covered some of the bay area's biggest stories.

Rock 'n' roll invaded Tampa Bay in 1956. First came a May concert in Tampa that featured Bill Haley and the Comets, the first group to produce a rock tune that sold a million records. Three months later, it was Elvis Presley, who played St. Petersburg and Tampa.

In entertaining predominantly white audiences, both Haley and Presley borrowed heavily from what had been essentially black music. Kids screamed their gleeful appreciation, while older folks reacted with a mixture of consternation and amusement.

There was a big difference in the concerts, however. Haley's racially integrated show wouldn't have been welcome in St. Petersburg. The 21-year-old Elvis, just entering national stardom, played both cities with an all-white supporting cast. Had he been traveling with black entertainers, as Haley did, he probably wouldn't have found a venue in St. Petersburg, certainly nothing that compared to the huge Florida theater, where he sold out all three shows on Aug. 7.

Black entertainers who came to St. Petersburg in those days were confined to a black venue, the Manhattan Casino on 22nd Street S. And since the city's hotels were segregated, they had to stay with black families. Integrated music just didn't happen in a resort town eager to avoid anything that might drive away family-style tourism. It was not until the early 1960s that the barriers of segregation began to fall in St. Petersburg.

Since its origins in the late 1940s and early 1950s, critics had said rock 'n' roll was suggestive music that would lead to race-mixing and riots. Elvis' hip gyrations were widely criticized by everybody but the young. For that reason, Haley had cleaned up the lyrics of Big Joe Turner's Shake, Rattle and Roll, which in 1954 became the first rock tune to sell a million records. His other big hits, See Ya Later, Alligator; Crazy, Man, Crazy; and Rock Around the Clock, were mostly adapted from teenage catch phrases of the day. Elvis, born in Tupelo, Miss., and raised in Memphis, just interpreted what he had heard in the Deep South.

Haley, a native of Highland Park, Mich., started out as a country and western guitar picker and yodeler at age 15. By the early 1950s, he was leader of a group known as the Saddlemen, who combined country music and swing.

A recording executive persuaded him to change his style to rock 'n' roll, and the group caught fire. His song Rock Around the Clock had been featured in a hit movie, The Blackboard Jungle, so he spoke to teenagers, too.

The Times sent me to the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa to cover Haley, who shared the stage with black entertainers like the Platters, Clyde McPhatter, 13-year-old Frankie Lymon and saxophonist Red Prysock. Earlier, that racial combination prompted the White Citizens Council in Birmingham, Ala., to picket the touring group, which was billed as "The Biggest Rock 'N' Roll Show of '56."

The entertainers who appeared with Elvis — his backup band, an emcee who sang Irish songs and a magician — were all white. Tickets cost $1.50 for general admission and $2 for reserved seats. He was skinny then and appeared in black pegged pants, a Kelly green jacket and white bucks. He threw himself into his music with frenzied hips, and his drummer, D.J. Fontana, provided showy counterpoint.

Haley's small band appeared in pink jackets and bow ties. Haley shook the "spit curl" that hung low on his forehead, and his bass fiddle player, Marshall Lytle, rode atop his instrument and even waved it overhead.

In 1956, Haley and the Comets were nearly as big a draw as Elvis. Their popularity in America waned toward the end of the decade, but they went to Europe and became a hit all over again. Their rockabilly style was easy to digest, and some say they helped provide the platform on which the Beatles later stood. They made two rock movies and Haley, who died in 1981 at age 55, was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Elvis passed into legend. After a two-year Army hitch, he made a string of movies that were romantic, extended music videos. In the process, he outgrew his early years as a live performer. Elvis' tragic end came in 1977, when he died a pill-addicted parody of his former self at age 42.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Jerry Blizin lives in Tarpon Springs.

About the photographs

The late Bob Moreland, who retired from the Times in 1992 after 40 years as a news photographer, helped cover the Elvis concerts. He won a first-place award in the National Press Photographers news photo contest for this close-up of Presley crooning a ballad.

Excerpt from a Times editorial on Aug. 8, 1956

The unsung heroes of yesterday's appearances of Elvis Presley here are the policemen who handled the crowds under Capt. C. G. Robinson.

These men have faced the toughest criminals, risked their lives in fast automobile races, chased burglars across roofs, directed parades and demonstrations — but until yesterday they didn't know what a fellow gets into when he becomes a policeman.

Thousands of screaming, yelling, laughing, pushing, shoving, hysterical teenagers — mostly girls — gave the policemen the real test …

Now that it's over, we'll pit the St. Petersburg police against all odds. There will be no task too tough for them.

Elvis' concerts showed 1956 racial divide 09/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 2:04pm]
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