Bob Kealing is probably best recognized in Central Florida as a longtime reporter for WESH Channel 2. He is also the author of four well respected books on Florida history and culture.
Kealing will discuss his new book “Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida,” on Saturday, April 1, at 2:00 pm, at the Library of Florida History, 435 Brevard Avenue, Cocoa. The free presentation is open to the public.
In his books, Kealing explores the lives of people with strong Florida connections, who each had a significant impact on popular culture.
“Kerouac in Florida: Where the Road Ends” looks at the life of Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac, who was living and working in Florida when his most famous works were published. “Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock” tells the story of a native Floridian who helped to create a new genre of music. “Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost, a Tupperware Empire” (the 2016 update of Kealing’s 2008 book “Tupperware Unsealed”) is under contract to be made into a film.
The new book, “Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida,” contains fascinating stories about the singer’s early career in the Sunshine State.
“I became interested in telling the story about young Elvis in Florida because for years I'd been picking up bits and pieces of information about his time here and it fascinated me,” says Kealing. “My interest accelerated while researching my Gram Parsons book because it became apparent Presley really was the Johnny Appleseed of nascent rock and roll in Florida. Turns out Florida and Floridians were crucial to Presley's rise to national prominence. That's why I tell people this book is not just nostalgia, though there's plenty of that in there, too.”
During a pivotal point in Presley’s career, the future superstar did a series of performances throughout Florida that helped to catapult him onto the national stage.
“Presley's four Florida tours, two in 1955 and two more in '56, bookend his rise from hillbilly oddity to the unquestioned King of Rock and Roll,” Kealing says. “Presley's last Florida tour in August of '56 marked the dawning of Presleymania, where the 21 year old kid from the Memphis projects burned hotter in Florida than the midday sun in July. This book explains in detail which Floridians spearheaded the fame, helped make it happen, where in Florida Presley's first million-seller was written and first recorded all in the same day.”
Elvis Presley died in 1977, but his popularity continues today. His influence on more than 60 years of popular music is undeniable. Every year, more than 600,000 people visit Graceland, the singer’s former home in Memphis, Tennessee. The White House is the only private residence to receive more annual visitors.
“Presley's early days represent a kind of liberation in his fans own lives, which to that point were painted in black and white and dominated by their parents conservative views” says Kealing. “Presley's music gave them an art form, and to a degree, an identity all their own. There's also sadness and tragedy in the Presley story, thanks to poor career choices and the suffocating presence of another former Floridian, his manager Tom Parker. Knowing how Presley struggled later in life and left an unfinished career, binds his fans to him even more closely. More than anything else though, it's the uniqueness of Presley's voice and talent. There's never been anyone like him and likely won't be.”
Kealing not only documents Florida history and culture, he helps to preserve it. He was instrumental in establishing Jack Kerouac’s Orlando home as the site of an ongoing writers-in-residence program. He worked to make Derry Down, the Winter Haven venue where Gram Parsons got his start, named a historic landmark and revitalized as a performance venue.
“I also hope to see this research used as the provenance to recognize the historic importance of several Florida sites in the Presley story,” Kealing says. “I'm talking about places tied to Presley's early time as a live performer. Florida was Presley's breakout state and there are places we could recognize as important mileposts along the way.”