In the far reaches of southeast Georgia lies 685 square miles of black-water swamp called “Okefenokee,” meaning “trembling earth.” Underfoot, you feel and hear the squish squish of the spongy ground. In winter, the mosquitoes are sparse and venomous snakes lie low. Put in a flatwater boat along any of the swamp’s 120 miles of canoe trails and there’s a pretty good chance the only human form you’ll see is your own, reflected in the mocha-colored water.
Two rivers are born from this swamp: the St. Mary’s and the Suwannee. At sundown, frogs sing in a communal chorus until all at once, they stop. In the spellbinding din of silence at twilight, constellations come into view. Generations of southern grandmas have told their babies all those twinkling stars are just holes in the bottom of heaven.
At Grand Prairie the tangle of downed trees, deep wooded thickets, and dense swamp gives way to a vast, miles-wide horizon. There seems to be little separation between earth, water, and sky. At sundown, wispy clouds travel along the fading hues of orange, red, and indigo. From this intimate vantage point you are one with this silent, intense place in nature—the head waters of Cosmic America.
On the Okefenokee’s northeastern edge in a railroad town called Waycross, local radio stations in the late 1950s reflected American music’s evolving sounds. WACL for “Atlantic Coast Line” and WAYX, short for “Waycross,” played infectious dance numbers by Macon native “Little” Richard Penniman, soul-stirring Ray Charles from Florida’s panhandle, and emerging rockabilly sensations like Louisiana-born Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins hailing from Tiptonville, Tennessee.
Most locals loved the tried-and-true country and gospel favorites. Hank Williams had the uncanny ability to translate the feelings of hard living in the South; the Louvin Brothers’ “high-lonesome” harmonies crossed over to gospel and secular audiences; trailblazers like Kitty Wells and Mother Maybelle Carter charted a course for women.
At night, radio waves traveled far and wide like invisible shooting stars. Kids tuned their transistor radios to the 50,000-watt blowtorch that was Nashville’s WSM-AM, home of the most important country music show in America: the Grand Ole Opry.
Then along came the distillation of it all, wrapped into one young Cosmic American king, from Tupelo, Mississippi, by way of Memphis, Elvis Aaron Presley. It’s impossible to overestimate Presley’s impact on the evolving youth culture of the 1950s. Before he became the biggest star in the world, Presley, like rock and roll’s Johnny Appleseed, performed live and captivated young audiences in myriad out-of-the-way southern towns.
Ingram Cecil Connor III was a pudgy, dark-skinned nine-year-old who liked to play practical jokes on his little sister Avis. On Saturday mornings he threw dance parties for neighborhood kids in the Florida room of his parents’ upper-middle-class ranch house at the corner of Suwannee Drive and Seminole Trail in Waycross. Even at that young age, the child his friends called “Gram” had already tuned in to the changing styles of contemporary music, and he liked what he heard. “I would get country music mixed with some rockabilly and I would listen for the rockabilly and I liked some of the country music,” he reflected many years later. “Some of the early Ira Louvin and Charlie Louvin and Louvin Brothers stuff, early Everly Brothers, the stuff which was considered country at first, turned me on, and so I listened to this combination of rockabilly.”
Like many of his peers in Waycross who came from money, Gram took regular piano lessons from a teacher named Miss Bessie Maynard. “You just knew music was going to be part of his life,” said Gram’s childhood friend Henry Clarke. “Everything he did had something to do with music.” On weekends, Gram and two friends who were as close to him as brothers, Clarke and Dickey Smith, rode bikes downtown to the Ware Tire Company on State Street. Along with Goodyear tires, the store had a housewares section with records for sale. Sometimes the boys would spend half a day there listening to albums. The store even had a little booth you could sit in for a free preview. Gram’s mother, “Big Avis” Connor, kept an open account for her son; he could always come home with the new single he’d heard on the radio.
During those Saturday morning parties, Gram’s friends brought over their own records. “They’d say ‘Gram, I want you to listen to this record’ and he’d sit down at the piano and pick it out,” said Clarke.
“I knew how to play the Boogie Woogie and he did too,” remembered Nancy Gill, a schoolmate of Gram’s younger sister “Little Avis.” In his room Gram had “these giant waist-high bongos,” Gill recalled.
Gram had a prankster streak and liked to tell jokes. One day he convinced Little Avis and Nancy he was carrying a long, dark snake over his shoulder. Turns out it was nothing more than your garden-variety, nonvenomous, black-leather belt. When he wasn’t torturing his sister with practical jokes, Gram was also her protector.
Smith remembered Gram’s ability to take the latest Little Richard song, listen to it four times, then go straight to the piano and play it. “Couldn’t read a lick of music,” Smith recalled. “He was uncanny.” One afternoon Gram marched into the Smiths’ kitchen, where Dickey’s hard-working, no-nonsense mom spent a lot of time.
“Mrs. Smith, I just wrote a song and I want you to listen to it,” Gram announced.
Dickey was amazed Gram had the gumption to interrupt his mother’s Saturday routine. She dropped what she was doing and followed him into the living room to the Smiths’ piano. Gram sat down and started working away on a number he’d put together himself. When it was over, Dickey’s mom asked him to play it again. “He called it ‘The Gram Boogie,’ ” Smith recalled. “He impressed my mother and that was hard to do.”
When Gram wasn’t preoccupied with music, the Connor kids could play on their “shoot to shoot” in the backyard. It consisted of a line running from tree to tree that they could ride along by means of a handle for hours of carefree enjoyment. In their beautiful Cherokee Heights neighborhood, prosperous couples raised loads of children in suitably comfortable brick homes. Towering pine trees bordered unpaved roads. Springtime was awash with pastel-colored azaleas and dogwood in bloom. It was nothing unusual to ride on horseback through the neighborhood. The kids knew Friday and Saturday as “play-out nights.” They built bonfires and played football, kick the can, and hide-and-go-seek. The parents socialized at someone’s home or at the country club.
In this small southeastern Georgia town, families like the Connors were royalty. Gram’s mother hailed from a Florida citrus family of vast wealth and real estate holdings, the Snivelys. Her father “Poppa” John started out as a fertilizer salesman. During the depression, he bought up vast tracts of land homesteaders put up for auction. Snively built a citrus empire and became a millionaire many times over. He owned and sold the land upon which Cypress Gardens was built. The Snivelys’ white-columned mansion to this day sits rather incongruously in the middle of the old-time Florida fun park. Poppa John set aside large trust funds for all his grandchildren, including Gram and Little Avis. Big Avis and her husband, World War II fighter pilot Ingram Cecil Connor II, nicknamed “Coon Dog” for his sad eyes, were married at the mansion.
Though intelligent, Coon Dog was quiet and gentle, not known for business acumen. Poppa John set him up in a supervisory position at his box-making operation in Waycross, guaranteeing his son-in-law the kind of salary and status befitting a man married to his daughter. There wasn’t a whole lot for Coon Dog to do, and Poppa John made it plain his input on big-picture decisions was neither welcomed nor needed.
“There were some weeks,” remembered Coon Dog’s employee of more than a decade, Claud Goble, “where he might not come down here but once or twice a week.” As long as the boys at the box plant were producing, Coon Dog could turn his attentions elsewhere. A gregarious man who liked to fish and hunt, in his spare time Coon Dog took on the role of scoutmaster to the neighborhood boys. It was clearly something he relished, even taking the boys on out-of-state camping trips.
“He would take us out there with BB guns or 22s and he would show us the safety, how to handle guns,” recalled Henry Clarke. Even though Dickey Smith wasn’t a Scout, he remembered fondly the times Coon Dog showed him the old jalopy he kept in the garage. Once in a while he drove them around Cherokee Heights in the old relic. “Boy, we thought that was unbelievable,” recalled Smith. In addition to his love of vintage cars, Coon Dog collected authentic Native American headdresses, pulling them out on special occasions.
Coon Dog regaled the boys with riveting stories from his days as a fighter pilot. He didn’t hesitate to discipline them, but Coon Dog was better known for his warm and jovial side. Those who grew up around him find it hard to forget Coon Dog’s smile. Gram’s dad was their hero too.
“I was much more comfortable with him than my mother, who was nervous and had all sorts of rules to keep,” remembered Little Avis. “I remember baseball games and hardware stores, harvest moons, sour-grass and pumpkins when I think of him, but the thing I remember most about Coon Dog is his sad eyes.”
His descendants say Coon Dog likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the dozens of bombing runs he flew in the war. And he had a wandering eye for the ladies surpassed only by an appetite for booze. “I’m sure there was a lot of stress he didn’t deal with,” said his granddaughter Avis Johnson Bartkus, “Mom said he always seemed sad.” By his granddaughter’s estimation, Coon Dog was a “functioning alcoholic,” who from time to time needed to “go and dry out when he was a mess.”
Big Avis had prom-queen looks and long, curly brunette hair. Her striking appearance wasn’t lost on Gram’s friends even at nine or ten years old. Said Henry Clarke, “She was one of the prettiest women I’d ever seen.”
Big Avis made sure her children were not left wanting—to the point of spoiling her son and daughter. There wasn’t any real work for them to do besides homework. “It would have been embarrassing for Gram to have to mow the yard or do the dishes,” said Smith, who cut his own grass with a push mower.
As she’d been accustomed to growing up in a wealthy central Florida family of the segregated South, Big Avis hired a black couple, Carrie and Johnny Barnes, to help cook and clean. If there were school clothes to buy, Avis had them delivered from the store. For better or worse, the Connor children had no worries about anything even resembling chores. Johnny drove Gram and his buddies to the record store, and every Christmas Carrie rode the train with them to Winter Haven to visit relatives.
The kids from Waycross never believed crazy stories Gram told them about his rich Florida grandparents. “Then I got down to Florida,” Smith chuckled, “and said, ‘Lord, he’s been tellin’ us the truth.’ ” For a couple of weeks during summer vacation with Gram, Dickey and Henry were transported to what must have seemed like a kid’s paradise: having the run of a gigantic mansion situated in the middle of Florida’s premier (pre-Disney) theme park, Cypress Gardens. Servants at the mansion never let the kids do anything for themselves. They could watch water-ski shows, then go backstage and hang out with the performers. To this day, Smith recalls in amazement, “The guy who taught me how to ski, his picture was on the skis!”
During a hunting trip, the boys ran out of shotgun shells; a new batch was brought in via helicopter. Henry Clarke marveled at how nonplussed Gram was by it all. “He was not that arrogant person, I’m rich or I come from a rich family,” Clarke said. “I think Coon Dog had a lot to do with that.”
Imagine the letdown when Gram’s friends had to go back home to reality. “I got chastised a great deal,” said Clarke. His parents reminded him they didn’t have servants to wake him up, lay out his clothes, or take him anywhere he wanted to go. If that didn’t do the trick, a crabapple switch would.
Nancy Gill remembered Big Avis lying in her king-sized bed flipping the channels back and forth with something wondrous she’d never seen: a remote control device. Lunch time at the Connors’ house, Carrie Barnes or one of the other maids cooked up exotic things like Cuban sandwiches, the kind you didn’t get at any other kids’ homes. There was a little table for four in the kitchen where the kids ate. “The adults would eat later,” Gill recalled. “A lot of times they were sitting around the living room having cocktails. Then they might go out.”
At the Okefenokee Golf Club, Gill’s father joined in on late-night partying with the Connors. “There was a lot of wild stories of Big Avis at the golf club, and my Dad was there so he saw all that,” recalled Gill. In one instance, Avis commandeered a fire truck and rode it around the country club grounds. And who would dare do anything about it? With their social status, the Connors and the Gills were practically a law unto themselves. But there was a price: in a small town like Way-cross, that kind of juicy gossip was going to get around and probably be exaggerated.
To his childhood friend Dickey Smith, all the talk had at least one very real trickle-down effect for Gram. Parents outside of the cocktail set didn’t want their children going over to the Connors and being exposed to his parents’ vices. “Besides me and Henry,” Smith said, “he didn’t have a whole lot of friends, personal friends.”
Playing and listening to music was like a refuge for a bright kid like Gram Connor. “If we ever had a concert come through town, I don’t think he missed it,” recalled Henry Clarke.
Then came the show that proved to be Gram’s musical epiphany. On Wednesday, February 22, 1956, nine-year-old Gram begged his buddies to go with him to an evening concert at the Waycross City Auditorium. A twenty-one-year-old rockabilly star-in-the-making named Elvis Presley, would be headlining two shows.
“C’mon,” Gram begged.
“Nah,” said his skeptical pal Dickey, “never heard of him.”
“This guy’s gonna be real famous!” Gram urged.
“I’ll wait until he becomes famous,” Dickey retorted with finality.
Undeterred, the budding ladies’ man Gram convinced a pair of older twin girls from another moneyed Waycross family, Diane and Daphne Delano, to go with him to the first of two shows that night.
Only at a fleeting crossroads in the Deep South could a small-town kid see live in one night such an assemblage of iconic musicians: Charlie and Ira Louvin, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, and the young star-on-the-rise Gram and the rest really wanted to see. Billed as “Mr. Dynamite, the nation’s only atomic-powered singer,” Elvis Presley was on the brink of breaking out big nationwide. In a 500-seat hall, the blueprint for Gram’s musical future converged: high-lonesome harmonies infused with Gospel, archetypal country from its first family, and a raucous, sexualized form of rhythm and blues sung by a white man, heretofore unseen in the segregated Bible Belt. On Sundays in Waycross, by local ordinance, the town’s radio stations carried nothing but church programs until two in the afternoon.
Presley would never again be so accessible—and young Gram Connor never more impressionable. With all the night’s excitement, Dickey Smith at the last minute went by the packed auditorium, “Just to try to get a peek.”
Mother Maybelle and the Carters started off the evening. Young June Carter “talked corn but wore a big diamond.” Her junior Minnie Pearl shtick belied the fact that June was a big-time talent, touring with her family and taking acting lessons from Elia Kazan in New York. It was twelve years before her marriage to Johnny Cash.
Enjoying the beginning of what would be their most successful year ever, Ira and Charlie Louvin belted out “God Bless Her Because She Is My Mother,” and their most popular song of the night, “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.”
With all the evening’s warm-up acts finished, the lights went down. Here’s how the Waycross Journal-Herald’s correspondent, using the nom de plume “A. Musik Lover,” described Elvis’s entrance: “The rather tall, dark complexioned youth came on stage wearing a lime green shirt with rhinestone cuff links and dark hair slicked back. Pandemonium.”
Presley had just recorded what would become his first number-one hit, its title reported in the local paper as “Heartburn Motel.” The only syllable Claud Goble heard from that song was its very first: