When did you know that you wanted to write about Elvis in Florida?
I’d heard the threads of information: Mae Axton writing “Heartbreak Hotel” in Jacksonville (turns out it was also recorded for the first time in her house the same day), Tom Parker’s military desertion and renaissance in Tampa, Presley’s multiple barnstorming tours here. Florida and Floridians played a key role in Presley’s rapid rise to stardom.
How does Florida’s history of other famous musicians relate to the book?
Presley was the Johnny Appleseed of nascent rock and roll in Florida. Gram Parsons, who I wrote about in Calling Me Home, was so profoundly moved by seeing Elvis live in concert as a child. Tom Petty met Elvis on a Florida movie set when he was eleven. It’s no accident the peninsula soon exploded with garage bands in the ’60s, and so many major stars emerged from them.
What distinct challenges did you face in writing Elvis Ignited that you had not faced in writing your other books?
My other subjects—Jack Kerouac and Brownie Wise in particular—left a trove of letters and memos to research. Presley was not a prolific writer. Thank goodness some of his important interviews and press coverage of his Florida tours remain. They were invaluable.
Did anything surprise you while researching for the book?
One unexpected surprise was finding compelling reportage again and again by early female Florida journalists. They took Presley seriously while their male counterparts were dismissive and superficial. This book is far better because of the work and insights by Jean Yothers in Orlando, Ann Rowe in Tampa Bay, Elvalee Donaldson in Lakeland, and Elvis’s promoter, songwriter, confidante, and champion, Mae Boren Axton.
Why do you think people ought to know about Elvis’s time in Florida in particular?
As we approach the 40th anniversary of his death, young people in particular need to be aware of the overwhelming impact Elvis had as an emerging, sexy, controversial performer. There are also little-known and unrecognized historic sites tied to Presley’s rise in Florida I would like to see recognized and preserved. My hope is this book provides the provenance to move forward with the preservation and recognition of Presley historic sites in Florida.
What do you believe is one primary misconception people have about Elvis?
People don’t realize what a short time fans had access to Presley as a dynamic live performer. From late 1954 to 1956 Presley toured the South primarily. It wasn’t until mid-way through ’56 when Presley had his breakout hits and became a huge star. By the time he appeared on Ed Sullivan, he was already moving into acting—away from touring, and away from Scotty and Bill.
What else may the average person not know about Elvis?
Presley played more live concerts in Florida during his most crucial and transformative year, 1956, than any other state; more than Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee combined. In a 15 month span, Presley played the entire width and breadth of Florida. He was, quite literally, everywhere. During his final Florida performance in the 1950s, a judge was waiting to take him to jail.
How have concerts changed since Elvis toured?
In Presley’s day, concerts were short and unadorned by expansive lighting and sound systems; there was more emphasis on the live performer because the set-up, the stage, the band, the sound, and even the time spent performing was so limited. Today fans are saturated with live streams and a variety of other ways to hear music and concerts. Rarely today is a performer so impactful on the culture so quickly.
If you were only able to listen to one of Elvis’s songs for the rest of your life, which would it be?
“If I Can Dream.” This is arguably his most compelling live performance of a brand new song commissioned to provide a substantive ending to his comeback special; a hopeful statement about all the turmoil in 1968.
What do you hope readers will enjoy most about your book?
Readers will be imbued with the spirit of Elvis touring Florida backroads and working hard to make a name for himself. I include sources who actually met and worked with Elvis: the director of Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special, Steve Binder; Elvis’s Follow That Dream co-star, Anne Helm; the late Jim Kirk, former mayor of Ocala, FL; the late Country Music Hall of Famer, Charlie Louvin. I also spoke with many fans who retain and share the magic of seeing young Elvis live generations ago.