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Forever fascinated: Tom Petty’s love for rock ‘n’ roll began the day he met Elvis in Ocala
By Bill Dean
Ocala Star-Banner — August 19, 2007
One summer morning in 1961, an 11-year-old Tom Petty sat on pine straw in his front yard, wondering how he was going to spend his day. By the end of the afternoon, he knew how he would spend his life.
To be sure, the events of that afternoon added another notch to rock ‘n’ roll history and a tantalizing addition to Florida lore. For, by the end of the day, the young, callow-headed Petty would encounter none other than Elvis Presley, the swivel-hipped sensation who already had been crowned “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” And by that evening, the Gainesville youngster would be forever fascinated — and hooked — on rock ‘n’ roll.
“I caught the fever that day, and I never got rid of it,” Petty later said in Paul Zollo’s 2005 book, “Conversations with Tom Petty.”
“That’s what kicked off my love of music. And I’d never thought much about rock ‘n’ roll until that moment.”
Sadie Darnell, Tom’s cousin who accompanied him to see Elvis that day, told The Gainesville Sun that the meeting between the King and Gainesville’s future rock ‘n’ roll son was a “life-altering moment” for young Tom.
“He was completely, completely enthralled,” said Darnell, who today is sheriff of Alachua County. “And Tommy told us as a family that he was going to be a rock star.”
On that day, as young Tom saw under a pine tree in his Gainesville home’s front yard, Presley was filming, appropriately enough, a movie called “Follow That Dream” on location in Central Florida.
Petty’s uncle, Earl Jernigan, owned a local film-developing business and worked on location shoots whenever filmmakers came to the area. Uncle Earl’s proof included one item that had already earned young Tom’s fascination: the rubber suit worn by the creature in “Return of the Creature from the Black Lagoon,” which was shot in Silver Springs.
So when Jernigan’s wife, Tom’s Aunt Evelyn, rolled into the driveway and asked her nephew if he’d like to “go and see Elvis Presley,” he was more than game; he was licking his chops at what would in a few hours become the adventure of his young life.
“I remember this vividly,” noted Petty, who at that point primarily knew Elvis as a character who had “caused some controversy,” likely due to those swiveling hips when Tom had been about 5 ot 6 years old. “He was known to me as a fellow who wiggled. And I did a little impression with a broom of wiggling like Elvis.”
After driving 30 mikes, Aunt Ellen and Tommy, along with his brother Bruce and cousins Sadie and Norma Darnell, pulled up near the film set in downtown Ocala — where Elvis was to shoot a scene of him driving up in a car and entering a bank.
“There was a huge crowd; the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen in the streets of Ocala,” Tom said in “Conversations.”
“And then, I swear to God, a line of white Cadillacs pulled in. All white. I’d never seen anything like that,” he remembered. “And I was standing up on a box to see over everyone’s head, because a big roar started up when the cars pulled in.”
Guys in mohair suits and pompadours began bounding out of each car — to Tom’s startled cry of “Is that ELVIS?” every time.
While Presley’s impact would later be carved into two halves, often referred to affectionately as “Young Elvis” or “Skinny Elvis” for his ’50s persona, and “Fat Elvis” for his later days in the ’70s, the character who appeared before Tom Petty in 1961 was firmly entrenched in an “Elvis No Man’s Land” between the two.
Presley had long ago stormed the charts with “Hound Dog” and “Love Me Tender.” But this was the era that saw the rise of Elvis movies, celluoid affairs that ranged from the critically acclaimed (“Jailhouse Rock”) to pure star vehicles (“Clambake,” “Spin Out” and others), in which the Pelvis usually saved the day and got the girl (played variously by everyone from Ann-Margret and Nancy Sinatra to Mary Tyler Moore).
So when the real Elvis finally appeared, Tom knew.
“He stepped out radiant as an angel,” Tom said. “He seemed to glow and walk above the ground. It was nothing I’d ever seen in my life. At 50 yards, we were stunned by what this guy looked like. And he came walking right towards us.”
Elvis’ hair was so impossibly black that it glistened a deep blue when the sun hit it. And that’s when Elvis walked directly over to Uncle Earl, Aunt Elleven and little Tom Petty.
“We were speechless,” Petty recalled. As Uncle Earl introduced Elvis to his nieces and nephews, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll smiled and nodded to each open-mouthed younger.
“I don’t know what he said because I was just too dumbfounded,” Tom said. “And he went into his trailer.”
Then, young Tom got “really excited” as hundreds of girls pressed against the chain-link fence. Many brandished album covers and photos, which one of Elvis’ “Memphis mafia guys,” as Petty described it, dutifully took into the trailer and returned, bearing authentic Elvis autographs.
Seeing the girls go wild over Elvis only added to the lasting impression on Tommy, his cousin Sadie said. “My sister and I were excited to watch them film a movie. But Tommy got caught up in the moment. It was like he was mesmerized with an imprint on his brain.”
Petty and his cousins hung out the rest of the day and watched as the crew spent hours filming that one scene of Elvis getting out of the car and entering the bank. And every time Elvis’ car rolled up, the crowd went “insane,” breaking through the barricades and charging toward the star.
“And I thought at the time, ‘That is one hell of a job to have. That’s a great gig — Elvis Presley,'” Tom said.
Young Tom began collecting anything he could find on Elvis. He ordered “The Elvis Presley Handbook” — which had had to send one dollar for, all the way to England. And he stayed inside the house — constantly — and did nothing but listen to Elvis music.
“My dad was concerned that I didn’t go outside, that I just played these records all day,” said Petty.
Three years later, like other musicians-to-be with Florida ties including Stephen Stills and Roger McGuinn, young Tom became even more enamored of rock ‘n’ roll when The Beatles arrived on American shores, appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and performing in concerts.
But Petty’s fascination with rock music began with Elvis Presley in Ocala. And though he nevr saw Elvis again, the flames from that fire never waned.
“I learned all of those early Elvis songs,” Tom told Zollo. “And having that kind of background in rock ‘n’ roll, of where it had come from, has served me to this day.
“It became an invaluable thing to have. So for that, I thank him.”