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|TOURING WITH YOUNG ELVIS: THE MAKING OF A PHENOM
April 06, 2017 - Naples Florida Weekly / Elvis Express Radio
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 Presley 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.
Mr. Parker helped shape the Elvis who caught fire, but his dominating and generally conservative decisions about girlfriends, songs and — only too soon — insipid movie roles,
repressed rather than released Elvis’s unique talents. He 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. As
they moved from smaller venues to more prestigious ones, they attracted both critical and supportive journalists who helped shape expectations.
And Mr. Kealing has the details.
By ransacking print coverage of the young troubadour, interviewing scores of people who met him along the way and 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 the charts. He 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 Mr. Parker pushed for
the big time by switching Elvis over to the giant but less edgy RCA, something was already lost.
It was West Palm Beach, Sarasota, Pensacola, Miami, Lakeland, Waycross (Ga.), St. Petersburg — and then on to the greater stages of bigger 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.
A section about the early 1960s provides an elaborate treatment of Elvis’s Florida time filming “Follow That Dream.” One of his better movies, this opportunity gained him the
embraces of his co-star, Anne Helm. Through his characterizations of Ms. Helm and other young women who were temporary or would-be paramours, the author pins down the
qualities that made Elvis so appealing. In the same section, he provides a telling analysis of the TV special that brought Frank Sinatra and Elvis together.
The great number of people — publicists, musicians, fans, hangers-on — who Elvis met and impressed during his early career reminds us of how dizzying life on the road can be.
You never know who will show up. Mr. Kealing points out the influence that Elvis had on two future stars — Gram Parsons and Tom Petty — who were essentially still children when
they first saw The King in concert.
This book has the energy of Elvis’s hip-shaking and leg-shaking performances. At once mythic and credible, it’s a kind of creation story. It’s a time and place not to be forgotten,
and Bob Kealing makes it exquisitely memorable.
About the author
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.” He is the author of four books, including “Life of the Party,” now in development as a major motion picture.
Mr. Kealing’s research has led to the establishment of the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando and Gram Parsons Derry Down in Winter Haven, both historic landmarks. He lives north
of Orlando with his wife and two children.
— Phil Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, is a poet, critic and freelance writer with 20 books to his credit, including several studies of war
literature and a creative writing text.