Elvis Ignited

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“I don’t think there was a better time and place to be a teenager than in Florida in the 1950s. It was such a magical place. Elvis is part of what contributed to that excitement.”—Bob Graham, former Florida governor and United States senator

“Kealing tells us the story of what happened when Elvis arrived in Florida and what role the Sunshine State played in his life and musical career. This is a critical era in the Elvis Saga.”—William McKeen, editor of Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay: An Anthology

“A Florida-centric look at his 1956 breakout state for people who thought they knew everything about Elvis.”—Joel Selvin, author of Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day

“Presents a great picture of what it was like to be a touring musician in the 1950s and also of Florida at the time and how the culture was changed by the shock of Elvis.”—Joy Wallace Dickinson, author of Remembering Orlando: Tales from Elvis to Disney

It was his most electric and influential time as a live performer. The young and hungry Elvis burst onto stages large and small—sexy, controversial, brimming with talent and ambition. One lightning-hot year in Florida fueled his rise from novelty act to headlining megastar.

Elvis Ignited tracks the rising star through his tours of Florida, from 1955 when Presley was an unknown to 1956 when Presley played more concerts in Florida than in any other state. In only fifteen months, Presley toured Florida four times, becoming the object of worship, scorn, and controversy. Struck by a new kind of music and performances so different from anything they had known before, Floridians saw how special Elvis was before the rest of the world caught on. Before their very eyes, he transformed from Hillbilly Cat to the King of Rock and Roll.

Bob Kealing interviews people who saw the King up close, recalling the time-stands-still memories of hearing his iconic songs for the first time. He speaks with Floridians who helped Elvis along the way: the late Jim Kirk from Ocala, who offered Presley his first headlining opportunity; former governor and U.S. senator Bob Graham, who saw the young rockabilly god at the dawning of Elvis mania; Steve Binder, who produced Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special; and Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Louvin, who opened for Presley in Florida.

Kealing follows Elvis after his return from the Army to his homecoming TV special in Miami with Frank Sinatra and through the filming of Follow That Dream in Florida in 1961, offering unique insights into the singer’s relationship with co-star Anne Helm, his controversial manager Tom Parker, and the beginnings of his melancholy as a prisoner of fame.

This book is a roadmap to Elvis’s time in the Sunshine State, a guide to the many small and large venues he played up and down the peninsula, and a spotlight on the people who witnessed, supported, and even opposed his meteoric rise to fame. It was a turning point in American music history; it was the arrival of rock and roll.

Kealing_AU Photo 2_Credit Marc Rice——-

Bob Kealing
, an Edward R. Murrow and five-time Emmy award-winning reporter for NBC’s WESH-TV in Orlando, is the author of Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock; Kerouac in Florida: Where the Road Ends; and Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost, a Tupperware Party Empire.
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Read our exclusive interview with author Bob Kealing as he shares his experience unearthing Florida’s importance in Elvis’s rise to stardom:

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When did you know that you wanted to write about Elvis in Florida?

I’d heard the threads of information: Mae Axton writing “Heartbreak Hotel” in Jacksonville (turns out it was also recorded for the first time in her house the same day), Tom Parker’s military desertion and renaissance in Tampa, Presley’s multiple barnstorming tours here. Florida and Floridians played a key role in Presley’s rapid rise to stardom.

 How does Florida’s history of other famous musicians relate to the book?

Presley was the Johnny Appleseed of nascent rock and roll in Florida. Gram Parsons, who I wrote about in Calling Me Home, was so profoundly moved by seeing Elvis live in concert as a child. Tom Petty met Elvis on a Florida movie set when he was eleven. It’s no accident the peninsula soon exploded with garage bands in the ’60s, and so many major stars emerged from them.

What distinct challenges did you face in writing Elvis Ignited that you had not faced in writing your other books?

My other subjects—Jack Kerouac and Brownie Wise in particular—left a trove of letters and memos to research. Presley was not a prolific writer. Thank goodness some of his important interviews and press coverage of his Florida tours remain. They were invaluable.

Did anything surprise you while researching for the book?

One unexpected surprise was finding compelling reportage again and again by early female Florida journalists. They took Presley seriously while their male counterparts were dismissive and superficial. This book is far better because of the work and insights by Jean Yothers in Orlando, Ann Rowe in Tampa Bay, Elvalee Donaldson in Lakeland, and Elvis’s promoter, songwriter, confidante, and champion, Mae Boren Axton.

 Why do you think people ought to know about Elvis’s time in Florida in particular?

As we approach the 40th anniversary of his death, young people in particular need to be aware of the overwhelming impact Elvis had as an emerging, sexy, controversial performer. There are also little-known and unrecognized historic sites tied to Presley’s rise in Florida I would like to see recognized and preserved. My hope is this book provides the provenance to move forward with the preservation and recognition of Presley historic sites in Florida.

What do you believe is one primary misconception people have about Elvis?

People don’t realize what a short time fans had access to Presley as a dynamic live performer. From late 1954 to 1956 Presley toured the South primarily. It wasn’t until mid-way through ’56 when Presley had his breakout hits and became a huge star. By the time he appeared on Ed Sullivan, he was already moving into acting—away from touring, and away from Scotty and Bill.

What else may the average person not know about Elvis?

Presley played more live concerts in Florida during his most crucial and transformative year, 1956, than any other state; more than Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee combined. In a 15 month span, Presley played the entire width and breadth of Florida. He was, quite literally, everywhere. During his final Florida performance in the 1950s, a judge was waiting to take him to jail.

 How have concerts changed since Elvis toured?

In Presley’s day, concerts were short and unadorned by expansive lighting and sound systems; there was more emphasis on the live performer because the set-up, the stage, the band, the sound, and even the time spent performing was so limited. Today fans are saturated with live streams and a variety of other ways to hear music and concerts. Rarely today is a performer so impactful on the culture so quickly.

 If you were only able to listen to one of Elvis’s songs for the rest of your life, which would it be?

“If I Can Dream.” This is arguably his most compelling live performance of a brand new song commissioned to provide a substantive ending to his comeback special; a hopeful statement about all the turmoil in 1968.

 What do you hope readers will enjoy most about your book?

Readers will be imbued with the spirit of Elvis touring Florida backroads and working hard to make a name for himself. I include sources who actually met and worked with Elvis: the director of Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special, Steve Binder; Elvis’s Follow That Dream co-star, Anne Helm; the late Jim Kirk, former mayor of Ocala, FL; the late Country Music Hall of Famer, Charlie Louvin. I also spoke with many fans who retain and share the magic of seeing young Elvis live generations ago.

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Categories: Arts & Culture, Author Interview, Florida History, History, Music, Publication Announcement, University Press of Florida

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