Charleston native Margaret Anne Florence had an edge that may have helped her land a pretty big role on CMT's new series, Sun Records — a show that takes viewers for a music history lesson via 1950s Memphis. Florence's mother was born and raised in Memphis, so between the family's Tennessee ties and their devotion to the music that came out of Sun — particularly that of Elvis Presley — it wasn't difficult to picture herself with the task of bringing Marion Keisker, the woman behind some of the world's most well-known recordings, to life.
"Luckily, I had that background with being born in the South, so you just automatically have that familiarity that maybe someone else wouldn't have," Florence says from her home in New York City. "That was a huge benefit that I had that information already and could talk about it. But I didn't know much about Marion Keisker so I obviously researched that once I got interested in the role."
A quick Google search won't get you very far in learning about the life of Keisker, the long-time assistant of Sun Records founder, Sam Phillips. However, it is well-documented that she's the first person to record Presley, famously asking the singer, "Who do you sound like?" His remarkably correct response was, "I don't sound like nobody."
But, as Florence soon found out, Keisker was more than just Phillips' right-hand woman (and lover). "She was just crazy about him and kind of had her whole life change to revolve around him in some ways as she helped him build a business," says Florence. "But she was such a fascinating person before meeting Sam Phillips. She was already producing her own radio programming and had established herself in the business when she was really a child. At 12 years old, she started performing on the radio so I thought that was so cool to be able to have a character and a real person like that who was so advanced in her generation, working and being an independent woman. And luckily for us, the writers and the director were really trying to highlight that side of her — that she was not just the girl behind the man, but she was really running things and being successful in her own right."
Even after Keisker resigned from Sun, she went on to help Phillips with a new venture — an all-female radio station called WHER, where everyone from the announcers and sales staff to management, record librarians, and copy writers were women. It was successful for 17 years.
Though little was written about the fascinating person Keisker was, Florence was still able to research her through recorded interviews owned by Sun. She also spoke to an old friend of hers in Memphis. "He knew her when she was older, before she passed away in the '80s," Florence says. "He told me what a charismatic woman she was, and people just really were drawn to her. And she did a lot to help the arts community in Memphis — not just in radio, but she wanted to advance women's careers."
Florence was also able to make the character her own, using both scarce bits of information about Keisker as well as the spirits of women in her own family. "This is something I told the executive producer when we had our original meeting, was that I feel like Marion Keisker is a lot of strong Southern women that I know, like my grandmother and my great aunt and women who were working in that time period. So I feel like in a way it's a tribute to them too to bring the pieces of them into this character as well because those are the women that I grew up with. My grandmother was a teacher her whole life and my aunt was the bursar at the College of Charleston for 40 years — they were educated women in the '30s when many women were not being educated. So also Marion Keisker — she had a great education, so having that to draw off of really helped. It was also just fun to think about how those women were living and how Marion Keisker was living in the same way in that time period."
Florence took advantage of her time in Memphis to reconnect with her family in and outside of her role. Though she never knew her grandfather — he passed away when her mother was 14 — she was still able to piece together the history of her family by visiting their old stomping grounds, including the church that her grandparents once attended. "Somebody there knew my grandparents and talked to me, so to have your life come full circle like that through a job is really strange," Florence says. "Of all the jobs in the world for me to get this seems like something that's been kind of piece-by-piece building throughout my life. So to come together and be a part of who Marion Keisker is too now — it's sort of crazy."