Review: Kealing's 'Elvis Ignited' captures a legend's beginnings in Florida

Anne Rowe, a reporter for the then-St. Petersburg Times, gets a hug and kiss from Elvis Presley as she interviews him before his show at Tampa’s Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in August 1956.
Anne Rowe, a reporter for the then-St. Petersburg Times, gets a hug and kiss from Elvis Presley as she interviews him before his show at Tampa’s Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in August 1956.
Published March 7, 2017

Elvis Presley died almost 40 years ago, but he comes back to life in the pages of Bob Kealing's Elvis Ignited.

This isn't Fat Elvis or even Thin Elvis. It isn't Elvis in a spangly white jumpsuit singing bland pop, or Elvis in forgettable movies, or Elvis in a long fog of drug abuse. This is the Elvis that created the legend: young, beautiful, raw and revolutionary, a shot of pure energy into mid-century America.

Elvis Ignited author Kealing has won five Emmy awards and an Edward R. Murrow prize as a reporter for WESH-TV in Orlando. In his spare time, he's a chronicler of Florida's role in American culture, with books about musician Gram Parsons (Calling Me Home), author Jack Kerouac (Kerouac in Florida) and Brownie Wise, the woman who built the Tupperware empire (Life of the Party).

Parsons, Kerouac and Wise all spent crucial parts of their lives in Florida, and that's true of Presley, too. "In fifteen months," Kealing writes, "from May 7, 1955, to August 11, 1956, Presley played fifty-nine Florida shows in a dozen cities; sometimes three or four concerts a day. ... Before any of his historic appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, where most Americans first became aware of him, Presley's barnstorming days in Florida were already over."

At his first Florida concert, at the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Beach, Presley made $50 as a warmup act for country singer Hank Snow. "The night before," Kealing writes, the 20-year-old Presley "had taken his own teenage girlfriend Dixie Locke to her junior prom in Memphis."

With his band, guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black, Presley had already recorded That's All Right at Sun Records in Memphis, and the song was getting some radio play.

But his live performances were what set Florida's teenage girls — then his main audience — ablaze.

In an era when most musicians stood stolidly at the microphone to sing and wouldn't have dreamed of offending their audiences, Elvis was a whirlwind of undisguised sex appeal. Although he had a lifelong reputation for charming Southern manners off stage, on stage he scandalized adults with hip thrusts, leg shakes and that trademark combination of bedroom eyes and bad-boy sneer.

The girls couldn't get enough. At one Jacksonville show in 1955, Presley hit the stage in a pink suit and ruffled shirt, closing the first half of a show that also featured well-behaved country acts the Carter Sisters and Skeeter Davis.

"After two songs the teenage crowd poured over the barricades," Kealing writes. Afterward, the kids bypassed security around Presley's dressing room and poured in through an unlocked overhead passageway. They tore off the singer's jacket, tie, belt and shirt; he had to climb on top of the showers to escape.

Kealing made major use of newspaper archives for this book, and he notes an interesting difference in the coverage of Presley by male and female reporters. The men were at best dismissive, tsking primly over Presley's sexy antics and disparaging his music and his fans. When he played Tampa's Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in August 1956, two male reporters from the Tampa Tribune mocked him as "America's only male hootchy-kootch dancer" and called his voice "feminine."

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Before the same show, Anne Rowe of the then-St. Petersburg Times spent an hour interviewing Presley, who put her at ease by chatting while he used a broom to sweep cigarette butts out of his dressing room, flirting a bit and then patiently answering questions. Describing the concert, she noted his "terrific showmanship. ... Presley was in his glory. He rocked 'n rolled his way through seven numbers, laughing, winking and wriggling in the well-known Presley manner." Female reporters, Kealing wrote, "filed far more detailed and compelling reportage about young Elvis."

Tampa was more than a tour stop, Kealing writes. It was also the home of the man who would rocket Presley to fame and, some say, ruin his life: Tom Parker. An undocumented immigrant from the Netherlands whose real name was Andreas van Kuijk, Parker had been charged with desertion from the U.S. Army, served 60 days in solitary confinement in Pensacola, then was diagnosed as a psychopath and discharged. He became a carnival barker, a career that led him to Tampa. Hired by the city's Humane Society, he was such a successful fundraiser that he morphed into a concert promoter, picking up the unearned rank of "Colonel" along the way. Kealing describes his strategic campaign to gain control of, and dominate, Presley's career.

Florida gave Presley his first big hit, too. In 1955 a Jacksonville publicist named Mae Axton, who was something of a mother figure to Presley, and musician Tommy Durden wrote Heartbreak Hotel in a half-hour at Axton's suburban home. The rest is history.

Kealing also describes Presley's return to Florida in 1960 to film Follow That Dream, his ninth movie. By then he was an international star. He had served a hitch in the U.S. Army and met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, his future wife, and lost his beloved mother.

But, according to the many people Kealing interviewed, Presley was still a down-to-earth guy who charmed everybody from local cops to Weeki Wachee mermaids during his six-week stay at the Port Paradise Hotel in Crystal River.

He made a particular impression on 11-year-old "Tommy" Petty, whose uncle was a prop master for the film. "He was known to me as a fella who wiggled," Petty said. But during the boy's visit to the set, the crowd roared as Presley stepped out of a convertible in Ocala. Petty said, "And then suddenly I go, 'That's Elvis.' He stepped out as radiant as an angel. He seemed to glow and walk above the ground. It was like nothing I had ever seen in my life." And so Tom Petty's obsession with rock 'n' roll, and another legendary career, were born.

Never again would Presley undertake a touring schedule as demanding as the one that burned through Florida in 1955-56, but he returned to the state for some concerts in the 1970s. Rowe, Kealing writes, saw him in Jacksonville in May 1977, less than three months before his death. "I remembered him young and full of fun and life. I could hardly look at him now. ... The sparkle was gone."

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.