Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida, by Bob Kealing. University Press of Florida. 280 pages. Hardcover $28.00.
Bob Kealing makes the case that the best Elvis is the earliest Elvis and that the managerial strategies of Tom Parker kept a great American original from reaching his full potential. By focusing on the emergence of Elvis during his Florida tours in 1955 and 1956, Mr. Kealing can handle in lavish detail the months of a young, unschooled performer’s leap from total unknown in May of 1955 to – by August of 1956 – a celebrated icon of a burgeoning culture without a name. A hillbilly rocker with a sexy performance style, Elvis had the girls swooning, their parents fuming, and the music industry paying close attention.
Tom Parker helped shape the Elvis who caught fire, but his dominating and generally conservative decisions about girlfriends, songs, and – only too soon – insipid movie rolls, repressed rather than released Elvis’s unique talents. Parker shielded Elvis from other influences and demanded total loyalty.
Packaged in road tours to Daytona Beach, Tampa, Fort Myers, Ocala, Orlando, Jacksonville, and elsewhere, Elvis and the two musicians who accompanied him nurtured a distinctive sound blending various musical and cultural traditions. They learned by doing. They didn’t begin as headliners, but in a remarkably short time ascended to top billing. They moved from smaller venues to more prestigious ones and attracted both critical and supportive journalists who helped shape expectations.
Bob Kealing has the details. Ransacking print coverage of the young troubadour, interviewing scores of people who met him along the way, following the one-lane paths of those early tours, the author captures the spirit of time and place as a new kind of music made its way up of the charts. Mr. Kealing must have tracked down almost every young woman still alive with whom Elvis flirted in about a year and a half of performances. No longer young, they have great memories to share.
As have other biographers and music historians, Mr. Kealing pays attention to the nurturing of Elvis by the genial owner of Sun Records in Memphis. When Parker pushed for the big time by switching Elvis over to the giant, less edgy RCA, something was already lost.
West Palm Beach, Sarasota, Pensacola, Miami, Lakeland, (Waycross Georgia), St. Petersburg – and then on to the greater stages of big cities, television, and movies. It’s as if once out of the Florida orbit, Elvis lost his essential self, smothered under packaging that distorted his true nature and gift. . . .
To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 5, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 6 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editons, click here: Florida Weekly – Elvis Ignited