"April is the cruelest month," T.S. Eliot famously wrote, but sometimes August isn't exactly a walk in the park.
August can mean hurricanes. For fans of Elvisology, it means the death on Aug. 16, 1977, that still inspires thousands to converge on Memphis during "Elvis Week" each year.
Two decades earlier, a young Elvis Presley rocked Orlando's Municipal Auditorium on Aug. 8, 1956.
It was among a string of Florida performances in 1955 and 1956 that marked important stops on Presley's road to fame. In August 1956, he topped the bill, but just a year before, in May and July 1955, "Elvis Presley with Bill and Scotty" played Florida cities as an auxiliary act, backing up artists including Faron Young and Andy Griffith.
Avalanche of fame
In 1955, the Orlando Sentinel's Jean Yothers noted "it was hot as blue blazes" for the May 11 shows at "Muni Aud," but country-music fans had still turned out in droves.
I've written about Yothers' prescience in noting, then, that the new level of celebrity rising around Presley might become a problem for him. In 1955, Ardys Bell Clawson of DeBary also witnessed evidence of that coming avalanche of fame.
Clawson grew up in Boca Grande, where her mother hailed from one of the oldest families in the Charlotte Harbor barrier islands. Clawson's branch of the family moved to Jacksonville in 1955, the year she graduated from high school and Presley appeared with "Hank Snow's All-Star Jamboree" at the city's new baseball park (later, the Gator Bowl) on May 12 and 13.
Presley was far from the headliner, but Clawson had sure heard of him. "We were country fans," she says.
Losing his shirt, literally
In a photo from about that time, Presley's band mates Scotty Moore and Bill Black wear traditional western shirts. He showed a flair for more unexpected fashion.
Mae Axton, publicist for many Florida tour dates (and co-writer of "Heartbreak Hotel"), later recalled trying to wheedle Presley out of the frilly pink shirt he donned for the May 13 show in Jacksonville. It was too girly, she kidded him, and he might as well give it to her, because "they are just going to tear it off you tonight."
Axton had no idea that she was right. As Elvis, Scotty and Bill ended their set before 14,000, Elvis quipped, "Girls, I'll see you backstage." Mayhem ensued; fans descended on the frightened singer in a locker room and tore from him his coat, shirt and boots. ("Last Train to Memphis," Peter Guralnick's fine Presley biography, includes this story.)
It was after that Jacksonville concert that Presley's new manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker, really got dollar signs in his eyes.
A fan but no 'screamer'
Clawson was not among the backstage throng. "I wasn't one of those screamers," she says. But she got much better concert souvenirs than a scrap of fabric: She got pictures of her and Elvis.
By pure chance, she and her brother, Philip Bell — who had a habit of carrying a camera with him — happened on Presley after the melee, under the bleachers where he was standing by himself, eating ice from a metal soft-drink cooler.
The next year, 1956, when Presley returned to Jacksonville, Clawson's brother snapped another after-show picture of her with the singer.
It's tempting for folks who have a brush with a famous person to embellish the memory, but like Yothers, Clawson tells it like it was.
Asked what she remembers about Elvis, she stresses that she didn't actually know him. She remembers him being bashful. He was about 20; she was 18.
Clawson is now retired from a career with the city of Jacksonville, including a stint recruiting firefighters. She has lived in DeBary since 1992. When her mother, Myrtle Susanna Padilla Bell, died in 2010 at age 96, the music at the family's celebration of her life included three gospel songs performed by Elvis Presley.
Joy Wallace Dickinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by good old-fashioned letter at the Sentinel, 633 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, FL 32801.