Elvis and band played 20 cities in three weeks
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, from 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 ScottyMoore.net. “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.