Early Elvis in Ocala

Posted July 2, 2008
James Roy -

"Several weeks back I was contacted with questions by a writer doing a story of Elvis, Scotty and Bill about their first tour in Florida. He sent me the text to the published articles in the Village Sun there and thought you all might find them of interest so am forwarding them on."
- James Roy
We finally published our Elvis series. Thank you to all who helped me by providing memories. I wish I could have quoted all of you all. The stories are below.
Gary Corsair
Senior Writer
The Villages Daily Sun

The boy who would be king.
Elvis built his fan base one show at a time in '55.

        By GARY CORSAIR, DAILY SUN - OCALA - Elvis Presley was more curiosity than singing sensation when the Hillbilly Cat and his pink-and-white Cadillac arrived in Ocala on Tuesday, May 10, 1955. As incredible as it seems today, Elvis not only wasn't the headliner on the WSM Grand Ole Opry All-Star Jamboree that evening, he was listed eighth in advertisements for the show at the Southeastern Pavilion.
        "Hank Snow was the top billing," recalled lifetime Ocala resident Ruben Lamb, who was 14 years old. "I went to see Hank Snow and hear some good ol'-fashioned country. Rock 'n' roll hadn't caught on yet."
        Snow was as famous as Presley wasn't. The first 14 songs released by "The Singing Ranger" all cracked the Top 10 of Billboard's country chart. None of Elvis' four singles had charted nationally. Nearly every member of the All-Star Jamboree overshadowed Elvis: Faron Young's "Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young" was heading for No. 1; The Wilburn Brothers' "Sparkling Brown Eyes" reached No. 4 the year before; and Slim Whitman was an established star with Top 10 hits "Indian Love Call" in '52, "North Wind" in '53, and "Rose Marie" in '55.
        No one - not even Elvis - dreamed the skinny, 20-year-old kid with the bedroom eyes and long sideburns would one day be viewed as "The King of Rock 'n' Roll." Elvis was eight months away from exploding on the national consciousness with the release of "Heartbreak Hotel," which would sell 300,000 copies within a week of its release.
        "None of us were familiar with the name Elvis Presley at that time," said Dale Summers, who was age 16 when he and his friends crawled under a fence so they could hear country music and meet girls at the Ocala show.
        Even the performers listed below Elvis on the bill - The Davis Sisters, Jimmy Rodgers Snow and Martha Carson - were more well known than the Hillbilly Cat when the tour kicked off in New Orleans on May 1.
        That wasn't the case by the time the show rolled into Ocala. Elvis, who was earning $50 a night, had stolen the show in nearly every city - Baton Rouge, Mobile, Birmingham, Daytona Beach, Tampa, Fort Myers.
        "He was buzzin'" "Back then, it was new music to all of us," recalled Artie Lee Lowe, who was age 16. "Here was this guy swiveling on that little makeshift stage. The girls were yelling and screaming. Oh my God, it was pretty radical back then." An estimated 2,700 attended the 8 p.m. show. Most came to see Snow, Young or Whitman, but some came to see Elvis.
        "A lot of us went since we heard about this new guy was going to perform," Lowe says. "We wanted to see what it was all about."
        "There was a disc jockey we all listened to, Nervous Ned Needham, and I recall him taking about Elvis," Lamb recalled. "He said, 'This kid, Elvis Presley, is going somewhere. He's going to be big time. Mark my words, he's going to steal the show.'"
        Ned may have been nervous, but there was nothing shaky about his prediction. Elvis did indeed steal the show.
        "We were impressed by the wildly gyrating, new young singer who broke three guitar strings during one number and ended up playing a guitar belonging to Hank Snow before it was over," said Summers.
        Elvis, in red-sequined dinner jacket with black lapels, white shirt and black pants, won the audience - at least the teenagers - by gyrating across the stage - the flatbed of a truck - while singing "That's All Right Mama," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," and "Good Rockin' Tonight" to frenetic accompaniment of guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black.
        "He was jumping up and down like a Mexican jumping bean. He was buzzin'," recalled Nita Billera, a then-13-year-old who attended the show with her parents and aunt.
        "There was a lot of screaming," Lamb said. "I was kind of mesmerized, so to speak." Whether you dug the music or not, there was no ignoring Elvis.
        "His hair was in a ducktail in the back, and pompadour style in the front, and was styled with pomade that made it look sort of greasy and shiny," recalled Belleview resident Jo Ann McNeal, who attended the show with her aunt. "I thought he was cocky and wondered who he thought he was. When he started singing, that thought changed to 'Who IS he?!'"
        Elvis was clearly operating in a universe far removed from the stand-and-strum cowboys on the show. "Everyone except Elvis was dressed in Western style," McNeal says. "My aunt remembers some people being upset that he was so different."
        Others were amused. "I went with a high school buddy to hear Hank Snow, and then someone came out and started to sing and twist all around. To us, and many of the people in attendance, it was kind of comical," said Jim Weaver, who was about to graduate from Ocala High School. "Some people had never heard of Elvis, including my friend and myself. There were a few people that sort of made fun of his movements, et cetera."
        Even members of the jamboree didn't know what to make of the kid. "Those old country stars, some of them were awed, and others, like a lot of people, were taken aback," recalled Jim Kirk, 80, owner of WMOP, the country radio station that sponsored the show.
        Ga-ga girls It was a different story with the girls. They were taken, all right, but not aback. During Elvis' performance, some girls left their boyfriends sitting in the bleachers. "We were trying to keep the crowd out of the field in front of the stage, but before he was through they just came out of the stands and sat on that red clay in the arena. The girls were all over the place," recalled Kirk.
        "The next day at school, all the girls could talk about was this new singer Elvis Presley," Summers recalled. Many of those girls - and some guys, as well - met Elvis "backstage" outside the cow pens performers used as dressing rooms.
        "He talked to everybody and signed autographs for everyone who wanted one," Billera said. With pretty girls, Elvis tried to do more than scrawl his signature. "He tried to kiss me - and others. And he asked me - and others - for a date," McNeal says.
        That was pretty much standard operating procedure for Elvis. Three nights earlier, after the show at the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona, Elvis spent time with Marsha Connelly, a Mainland High School sophomore. And she can prove it. A photo of Elvis and Marsha appeared in a MHS yearbook.
        In May 1955, before image-conscious "Colonel" Tom Parker became his manager, Elvis openly sought companions of the opposite sex. But he only did so from the stage once.
        Two days after the Ocala show, Elvis created a near riot when he closed a performance in Jacksonville by shouting, "Girls, I'll see y'all backstage." Hundreds of girls accepted the invitation, chasing him into a locker room, where they tore Elvis' shirt to shreds, ripped his jacket and took his socks and shoes before police rescued him. After that, Elvis was more discreet.
        "I know that Elvis did not invite girls backstage anymore. I think he learned that it was not a good idea," says Jimmy Rodgers Snow, who performed on the All-Star Jamboree tour and sometimes roomed with Elvis.
        The girls, however, became bolder. When Elvis returned to Florida in 1956 - this time as an established star - every girl seemed to want him. "The girls I knew from my class were all going ga-ga over his coming performance," said Jimmy Young, who attended the Aug. 9, 1956, show in Daytona Beach. "Girls from my classes fainting away and throwing panties up on the stage ... I couldn't believe what I was seeing!"
        Even good girls lost their inhibitions when Elvis, who had scored four consecutive No. 1 hits in the first half of '56 slid across the stage on his knees while performing 'Hound Dog.'
        "I stood up and started screaming and crying, which continued through the entire show," said Trish Robbins, who attended Elvis' 1956 Daytona Beach show. "We cried so hard, we tore a real hanky in thirds and each piece was soaked with tears. I never really understood why we reacted like we did, but you just couldn't help it.
        "Afterwards, we tried to climb the wrought-iron fence behind the building and got caught. We then went to the back stage door. I got on my stomach, and through the little opening; Elvis signed his autograph on my little piece of paper."
        The teenyboppers weren't the only girls going wild. "I remember sitting by a woman who at the time I thought was old; she was probably in her late 20s or early 30s, and she was going nuts. It was phenomenal," recalled Marsha Connelly, a high school student who attended all three shows Elvis performed in Daytona Beach in '55 and '56.
        Daytona Beach was as close as Elvis would get to Ocala during his second tour of Florida - big cities only this time. And big excitement.
        "I had never seen anything like it - all the screaming girls jumping up and down and wiggling all over," said Dave Duncan, who attended the Daytona Beach performance. "My grandmother and aunt enjoyed the show, but showed more self-control. I remember being surprised to see a pregnant lady sitting in front of us jumping up and down like the other teenagers."
        No one had seen anything like Elvis. The Hillbilly Cat was light years beyond Grandpa Jones, Stringbean, Kitty Wells, Eddy Arnold, Minnie Pearl and every other performer who played Ocala.

The boy who would be King.
Ocala show helped catapult Elvis to stardom.

        By GARY CORSAIR, DAILY SUN - OCALA - Millions of Americans who tuned into the "Ed Sullivan Show" on Sept. 9, 1956, thought they were witnessing an overnight sensation wiggling, jiggling and singing "Don't Be Cruel."
        Most didn't realize that Elvis Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black had spent the previous 16 months building a fan base from die-hard country fans one show at a time on Florida stages - and at least once, the back of a flatbed truck.
        There were no tour buses, no after-concert buffets, no TV cameras, no groupies during the May 1955, three-week, 20-city WSM Grand Ole Opry All-Star Jamboree tour headlined by Slim Whitman and the late Hank Snow and Faron Young, three of the biggest names in country music.
        Sometimes, there weren't even beds. "Depending on where they were, how much time they needed to get from gig to gig, and how much money they had, they'd either stay in hotels or take turns sleeping and driving in the car," said James V. Roy, webmaster and archivist of "It was basically every group on its own to get from place to place."
        According to Snow, Elvis was earning $250 a week - before expenses, which wasn't too shabby for an opening act. On the other hand, it was chicken feed for the hottest performer on the bill, which is what Elvis, Scotty and Bill quickly became.
        "Hank Snow was the closing act," Skeeter Davis of the Davis Sisters wrote in her autobiography. "I have a program: It was Onie Wheeler, Elvis was second, the Carter Family, the Davis Sisters, then Hank Snow. Finally, Hank had to let Elvis close the show. It got to where nobody could follow him. Hank hasn't forgotten it. Every time he sees someone on the Opry who's driving people crazy he says, 'Reminds me of my days with Elvis Presley.'"
        The country crooners on the tour could hardly believe the way crowds reacted to the kid who was making a living by driving a truck seven months earlier.
        "I'd be out there tryin' to sing 'Goin' Steady' or 'Sweet Dreams,' and they'd holler, 'Give us some more of Elvis,'" Young told disc jockey Ralph Emery. "I went to that promoter and I said, 'Hey, this fellow who's also added, well, add him right after I go on.' I said I don't wanna follow him, 'cause he was tearin' 'em up. But see, they didn't let him have but maybe 10 minutes and that wasn't enough for 'em."
        The enthusiastic reactions of the mostly teenage crowds were not lost on Snow's manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker, who had first seen Elvis perform on the Louisiana Hayride in January.
        "That's real dirty" Elvis was knocking them dead with loud clothes, loud music and a stage act unlike anything the established stars had seen.
        "I used to tell him not to shake his hips," Young recalled. "I said, 'Don't do that. That's real dirty; you shouldn't do that. He said, 'Well, it's goin' over and until it stops, I'm gonna keep on doin' it. He was right and I was wrong. I thought it was a fad. Everybody thought he was gonna be a fad."
        Parker, who had managed Eddy Arnold from obscurity to the top of the country world, didn't think Elvis was a flash in the pan.
        Parker was convinced of Elvis' potential by the time the Grand Ole Opry All-Star Jamboree tour began May 1. If he had any doubts, they were erased after a pack of girls chased Elvis across a football field following the May 5 performance at Ladd Stadium, in Mobile, Ala.
        Less than a week into the tour, Elvis - who hadn't had a single national hit - was closing the show, even though his name continued to appear below Snow, Young, Whitman, the Davis Sisters, and Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters on newspaper ads.
        "I was truly amazed at the reaction Elvis received after his first performance on stage," Snow recalled. "For a completely unknown artist to capture an audience in this manner was unbelievable." Elvis earned his star one unsuspecting audience at a time.
        "My father was a country music fan. He got tickets thinking the concert would be the usual sad-song presentation he liked. Well, when Elvis took the stage, my dad was mortified! He couldn't believe his eyes," recalled Ruth Bowman Sober, who was a Mainland High School sophomore at the time. "Elvis' swiveling hips were just too much for him; never mind he could sing. I, on the other hand, was thrilled like the rest of the teenage girls. What a hunk!"
        Village of Alhambra resident Dot Miski, who attended the show with her parents, recalls several adults also clearly enjoyed the music and antics of Elvis, who wore a pink linen jacket. "He was very popular with the crowd and pretty much stole the show as far as the girls were concerned," Misik said.
        "Elvis had the young and old standing with his music. It was obvious he was going places," recalled Holmes Davis, who attended the May 7 concert at Daytona Beach's Peabody Auditorium. Audience reaction was just as strong the next night at the Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory in Tampa.
        "I was amazed at the reaction of the crowd, especially the young girls in the audience," said Bill Hipp. "He sang, 'That's All Right Mama,' and as became usual, gyrated over the stage with great enthusiasm with his legs whirling around. The girls started standing and screaming, a trait that later became pretty standard with stars, but I had never seen it before, and as a 15-year-old boy, I was flabbergasted at their reaction to Elvis. My dad, who took me to the concert, was a country music fan, and even more surprised."
        The King maker By the time the tour reached its southernmost point, Fort Myers, on May 9, Parker was scheming to supplant Elvis' manager, Memphis DJ Bob Neal. While Neal, a disc jockey on WMPS in Memphis, was spinning records, Parker worked to gain Elvis' loyalty and trust by occasionally slipping the young performer $100 bills and devising a plan to increase Elvis' stage time.
        To Parker, the Fort Myers performance was further proof that Elvis could carry the show. "He did steal the show from all the other performers, and there were quite a few, as I recall," Bill Gilmore said. "Radio station WMYR sponsored the event, and a local DJ named Brad Lacey always claimed that he loaned Elvis a pair of pants that were too big, and he started his gyrations to keep his pants up, I guess."
        Parker boldly made his move before the next show, at Ocala's Southeastern Pavilion. "He brought seven or eight (Grand Ole) Opry stars when he came. He wanted them to do the minimum amount and for Presley to do the most," recalled Jim Kirk, 80, who owned WMOP, the country music station that sponsored the May 10, 1955, Ocala concert. "He worked it out with the other stars on the show so that they would each play a couple of songs and Elvis would do the rest."
        Kirk wasn't privy to what promises Parker made to get Snow, Young, Whitman, the Wilburn Brothers, and Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters to "open" for Elvis, but apparently the "Colonel" pulled off the switcheroo.
        For one show at least. According to the book, "Elvis Day by Day," Snow followed Elvis the next night in Orlando. It would be the last time Snow closed the show on the tour. According to "Elvis Day by Day," Orlando fans clamored for Elvis when Snow took the stage. When an announcer tried to restore order by announcing that Elvis was out back signing autographs, the auditorium emptied.
        Whether that was the final straw for Snow, or whether Parker again pushed his future client to the top of the bill, Elvis was back to closing the show at the next stop in Jacksonville. He would never be an opening act again.

The boy who would be king.
In '55, "Elvis the Pelvis" was just a regular guy

        By GARY CORSAIR, DAILY SUN - Teens fortunate to meet Elvis Presley on his ascent to stardom remember a sweet, gentle person. They also remember it was extremely easy to get close to the man who would be king. "After the show, a few of us went out back and talked with Elvis. He was very personable and talkative," said Bill Gilmore, who attended the May 9, 1955, show at the city auditorium in Fort Myers.
        In the spring of 1955, there were no police escorts, no bodyguards, no Memphis Mafia to keep fans away from Elvis. "He was just a regular guy," said Tom Wells, who says he attended a "casual, local party" that Elvis attended after a performance in Daytona Beach.
        Larry Silva found out the next night in Ocala. "I remember the Elvis concert very well, because two of us were trying to sneak in to hear both Elvis and Hank Snow. We were behind the Pavilion, trying to figure how we were gong to get in, when a limo pulled up, and out steps Elvis. He asked what we were doing, so we told him. He said, 'Follow me,' and off we went," Silva recalled. "Our conversation was totally about being broke, and yet wanting to see the show. So I guess he felt sorry for us, and let us go in with him."
        Meeting Elvis was easy during the May 1955 WSM Grand Ole Opry All-Star Jamboree tour, in which Elvis opened for established stars Hank Snow and Faron Young. Find the pink-and-white Cadillac "limo" Elvis drove from show to show - which wasn't difficult since it was one of a kind - and you'd find Elvis, who enjoyed meeting his fans, especially female admirers.
        "During his first days on the road, he was content to look - and to flirt," Peter Harry Brown and Pat A. Broeske wrote in "Down At The End of Lonely Street: The Life & Death of Elvis Presley."
        Elvis usually left with a local girl snuggled beside him in the front seat, but he was seldom in a hurry to rush off on a "date." Spike Root saw firsthand that Elvis wouldn't leave until he had met everyone who wanted to shake his hand or get his autograph.
        "There was a crowd around this car, so we just stood there in the back," recalled Root, who attended the Fort Myers show. "He noticed us back there being polite and asked if there was anything he could do for us. I said, 'I would like you to sign this photo for my date.' The people parted, and we walked right up and he signed it and said if there was anything else he could for us, to just let him know."
        Elvis' affinity for fans was due to loneliness as much as politeness. "Just about everybody on that show would put him down. I know he could hear it," recalled Faron Young's fiddle player Gordon Terry in Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story (University of Illinois Press). According to Young's biographer Diane Diekman, when Terry invited Elvis to swim at the motel where the headliners were staying, Young and the others got out of the pool and returned to their rooms.
        The animosity may have boiled over to the stage. "I remember there was some sort of disturbance behind the stage and someone said there was an altercation between Elvis and Faron," recalled Kenneth Sadler, who attended the May 10, 1955 WSM Grand Ole Opry All-Star Jamboree show in Ocala.
        "I think he wanted to be with people, but they shied away from him," Young's steel guitar player Joe Vincent told Diekman. "Jealousy, I guess. He could fool around with the sidemen, because they weren't envious, but most of the stars would stay arm's length from him."
        To the late Shirley More Cullum, it was almost as if Elvis was building his fan base one person at a time. "Shirley personally told me that while she was taking pictures of the featured artists, Elvis, who was an unknown at the time, remarked to her, 'I don't know why you want their pictures; I will be much more famous than them. Would you like my picture?'" recalled Shirley's classmate Sally Archer Utter. "Shirley went on to tell me that just to appease him, she had whoever she was at the concert with take her picture with him."
        That was as close to being brash as Elvis would come during his breakout tour. James Mott, whose father "Bitsy" accompanied Elvis during part of the tour and later became The King's chief of security, remembers Elvis' meekness being put to the test by a reporter prior to the May 8, 1955, show at Tampa's Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory.
        "Elvis told her he would be happy to answer all her questions momentarily when he finished talking with us. The moment he turned around to talk with us, the reporter, who was standing directly behind Elvis, began tapping him on the shoulder as rapidly as a machine gun and saying his name over and over again, 'Elvis', 'Elvis', 'Elvis', almost as rapidly as the tapping. He kept turning around and telling her that he would be with her in a moment. But she kept up the shoulder tapping and calling his name constantly, being very rude, and never slowing down," James recalls. "I really admired him for keeping his cool."
        Marsha Connolly, a pretty brunette who caught Elvis' eye after the May 30, 1955, show at Daytona Beach's Peabody Auditorium, says Elvis was always a perfect gentleman.
        "He was kind of innocent at the time. He was very quiet. He was a nice guy. I can't say a thing bad about him. He was very mannerly, very much a southern gentleman," says Connolly. "It never escalated into anything. There never was a romance. He took my girlfriend and I home after the show. He kissed me, and then my mother came out."
        It must have been quite a kiss. Elvis was looking for Marsha when he returned to Daytona Beach for a performance on Aug. 9, 1956. "Everybody was getting his autograph, and when I came up and he said, 'Marsha!' you should have seen the looks on the faces of the other girls when he left with me."
        According to Connolly, who was a Mainland High School majorette, some of the girls were much better looking than she was.
        "I didn't look bad. He liked brunettes. I was just a normal girl, but I think he liked normal girls. I don't think he went for the drop-dead gorgeous types," Connolly said.
        For a while, Connolly thought the relationship might become more than a friendship. "When you're innocent and naive, you think, 'Why not?' But when he became more famous, the women were just throwing themselves at him. There were so many women," Connolly said. "I can see that now, but at the time I was dumb. I wasn't in love. I was just a young girl. I was star-struck, but I wasn't in love."
        Elvis was a national star by the time he returned to Daytona in '56. He was changing. So was Marsha. "I always had a weight problem and I got kind of fat, and I think that kind of did it," Connolly says.
        Today, Connolly treasures pictures of her and Elvis, and a note he wrote her that begins, "I still love ya Marsha" and ends with his address and phone number, but she doesn't talk about the experience like she once did. "I don't tell people, because people don't believe me," Connolly said. "I'm afraid they'll make fun of me."

Gary Corsair is a senior writer with the Daily Sun.
He can be reached at 753-1119 or

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