Publisher’s Note: Elvis Presley passed away 40 years ago on Aug. 16. Music aficionado and TIR contributor Larry Lewis was inspired when he read Bob Kealing’s book, “Elvis Ignited,” and offered a story. Thanks to Bob for talking with Larry, and thanks Larry for the memories of the king.
In today’s cyberworld, a performer can become an overnight sensation when a YouTube video goes viral around the globe. But in mid-1950s America, there were no such shortcuts for massive success. Not even if your name was Elvis Presley.
As the new musical wind called rock’n roll was sweeping aside more staid formats, entertainers chased their dreams the old-fashioned way. They climbed into vans, buses, Studebakers and anything with room for a band and gear. In the pre-interstate South, they hit the local byways, fanning out like a spider’s web, plying the nightspots and music halls on a grueling trek promising only simple meals at the nearest Waffle House. Elvis was no exception.
Florida and Tampa Bay proved crucial to Presley’s breakthrough then, as examined in Orlando author Bob Kealing’s new book, “Elvis Ignited,” which finely details all of his appearances in the Sunshine State over four tours and 15 months in 1955 and ‘56. In that time, the dynamic singer performed 12 shows in Tampa Bay over five dates. And while he only played two venues in St. Petersburg and Tampa, those shows are seen today as iconic manifestations of Presley’s raw power, defining the image of the man and his music.
The Homer Hesterly Armory on Tampa’s North Howard Avenue was the only venue Elvis played on all four tours, starting May 8, 1955, when the 20-year old Sun Records artist, with his regional hit, “That’s All Right Mama,” earned $50 bottom-billed on a country music program featuring Hank Snow.
After doing two songs with his backing duo of Scotty Moore and Bill Black, Elvis was known to sit in the audience to watch the show, chatting with new fans. Says Kealing, “Elvis Presley’s early shows in Tampa were channel markers for his rapid ascent to fame in those watershed years.”
Proof of this soon arrived when Elvis, now opening for Andy Griffith, returned to Hesterly a few months later for twice the pay, under the growing influence of manager “Colonel” Tom Parker; himself an illegal Dutch immigrant and Army deserter with an assumed name and strong Tampa ties. Here, he’d worked as a carny and a dogcatcher with the Hillsborough County Humane Society. “Tom Parker felt particularly at home at Homer Hesterly because that’s where he promoted his first concert, before he ever met young Elvis,” notes Kealing.
He adds, “Hesterly is also where (local photographer) Red Robertson took the classic photo of the young Elvis, July 31, 1955. Far more than just an oft-used publicity photo, it is also the definitive portrait of 20-year old Presley, the cultural change agent, sex symbol and epitome of cool.” Today, this Tampa photo is seen as the archetypal image of the hillbilly cat and original show posters using it can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. This is the Tampa Bay show that Kealing would have attended, had he a time machine, he says.
By early 1956, Presley and cultural worlds like an H-bomb. Now with RCA, which bought Elvis’ Sun contract for $35,000, he was a newly minted phenom thanks to his hit, “Heartbreak Hotel” and early nation- al TV appearances. This was his breakout period and he returned to the armory in Tampa as a headliner for three shows on Feb. 19, still riding a wave that was to crest later that year.
The tsunami struck the nation full force by that summer, as Elvis embarked on a 9-day Florida tour with two stops in Tampa Bay including a fourth visit to the Hesterly Armory on Aug. 5 and his first foray into St. Petersburg’s Florida Theatre, at the corner of First Avenue South and Fifth Street, on Aug 7. Imagine Elvis Presley driving his new Lincoln Premiere south on the Gandy Bridge and entering St. Petersburg via Fourth Street, headed downtown. The glances traded at red lights must have been eye-popping.
Dating to 1926, this grand dame venue was the city’s first air-conditioned building; a feature fully taxed over three shows played to 6,500 worshippers, in total. Fans staked spots in line at 4:15 a.m. and were allowed in early due to drenching rains in the late morning. When Elvis hit the stage in his Kelly green sport coat and dark pants, the shrieking slammed the walls, non-stop. Notes Bob Kealing, that dynamo who’d once opened for Andy Griffith in 1955, “was now the supernova headliner.”
Anne Rowe was a 20-year old reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and one of a few female Florida journalists who, unlike most of their male counterparts, filed what Kealing calls, “more in-depth, detailed stories” on Elvis. “They were never harsh or obviously condescending.” In her positive review the next day, Rowe’s headline declared, “Rock ‘n Roll King Rules ‘St. Presleyburg.’” Four weeks after St. Petersburg, Elvis debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Today, all but one of the theaters Presley packed during that sweltering August tour of seven cities still stand. The Florida Theatre was demolished in 1968 and the Florida Holocaust Museum now occupies that footprint. After a lengthy hiatus, Elvis resumed touring in the 1970s and played Tampa Bay on five more dates. Both venues, Tampa’s Curtis Hixon Hall and St. Petersburg’s Bayfront Center, have also since met the wrecking ball.
St. Petersburg holds the distinction of being the city where Elvis Presley gave his final Florida concert, on Valentine’s Day of 1977. Six months later, he passed at home in Memphis at age 42, 40 years ago this month.
“I don’t think there was a better time and place to be a teenager than in Florida in the 1950s,” said former Florida governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham to Bob Kealing. “It was such a magical place. Elvis is what contributed to that excitement.”
Bob Kealing is an Edward R. Murrow and five-time Emmy award-winning broadcast journalist who has appeared on Dateline NBC, C-Span, the Today show, CNN, MSNBC, and CBS This Morning. “Elvis Ignited” is Kealing’s fourth book and is available at retailers and www.amazon.com.