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 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.
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