Tuesday, January 18, 2022
56.2 F
Fort Worth

Don’t call them impersonators: Inside the jumpsuited world of Elvis Tribute Artists

🕐 12 min read

Amy Argetsinger (c) 2014, The Washington Post. OCEAN CITY, Md. — The Elvis on stage right now is a pretty good Elvis.

He’s rocking out with a full band to “See See Rider” as a Jumpsuit Elvis, aka 1970s Elvis, the most popular kind of Elvis at this or any Elvis Festival. He moves well, and he stays in character between songs. “Hello, my name is, uhhh, Engelbert Humperdinck,” he jokes huskily. He leans down to give a little sugar to a lady in the front row. “Close your mouth next time,” he teases.

Tim Hendry respects the Elvis he’s watching — a longtime friend and sometimes competitor from the North American Elvis impersonator circuit. Hendry is at the far back of the hotel ballroom where all the off-duty Elvises hang out, incognito in jeans, a dark shirt, Clark Kent glasses. Only his mane of black hair and spectacular mutton chops give him away.

“He’s got a really good voice,” Hendry says. “On key. Strong. That’s a huge part of it.”

Anything lacking? Well, the look isn’t perfect, Hendry says. “He’s a little shorter than Elvis. And his hair. He needs to work on his hair.”

And maybe he’s, uh, a little too thin? At this point Hendry bristles slightly — in defense of his friend, in defense of their hero.

“People always make that mistake with Elvis,” he chides. It was only in the final months of his life, Hendry maintains, that the King piled on the excess weight that made him a cruel punch line after his death in 1977 at the age of 42. “He was really slim in ’72, ’73, ’74. He looked great in that suit.”

That suit. That hair. Those hips. That voice. The jiggling knee, the sleepy smile, the whirling arms. The growl, the croon, the bedroom whisper, the haunting sob. Of course, Elvis Presley, who would have turned 80 in January, was so much more than the sum of his parts — a perfect storm of killer talent and towering charisma that collided with a voracious new youth culture, remade pop music and then died too soon.

But for Hendry and the others who try channel him, getting those parts right is both art and science — maybe even an act of devotion.

Forget everything you think you know about Elvis impersonators — those sideburned dudes working as airport greeters in Nevada, the kitschy karaoke hosts, the wacky Elvii capering through “Honeymoon in Vegas.” The men working the surprisingly intense — and potentially lucrative — competition circuit aren’t in on that joke. Millions of fans, old and young, still crave some taste of the live Elvis experience they probably never enjoyed for real, and these guys are dead serious about delivering it.

So don’t call them impersonators. They’re Elvis Tribute Artists now, thankyuhveramuch.

He performs as Tim “E” Hendry. You know what the “E” is for. He’s got the height of Elvis, about 6-foot-1. He has the hair of Elvis — not a wig like some guys, although, yes, he dyes it, but hey, so did Elvis. He’s been told he has the Elvis cry in his voice.

“Sometimes they say, ‘I thought it was Elvis up there,’ ” Hendry says. “There’s no higher compliment.”

Hendry, 47, has traveled here from his home in London, Ontario, on a mission: To win the Ocean City Elvis Festival, one of several regional qualifying competitions that can earn a tribute artist a berth in the annual Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist contest in Memphis, where the grand prize is $20,000. He’s competed at that national level for the past five years — first, as the champion of the 2010 Collingwood (Ontario) Elvis Festival and later as the emissary of Elvis fests in Toronto, Philadelphia, and Portage, Indiana, where he’s won twice. (The next competition will be Dec. 6 at Foxwood Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut.)

He’s already making a living as a nearly full-time Elvis, an income supplemented by drumming in other people’s bands. The Ultimate trophy might boost his career, but that’s not the point. “I’m stubborn,” he says. “Yeah, I’m disappointed I haven’t won already. I love the fans. And I just love Elvis so much.”

He used to avoid the competitions: “They can be political,” he says. But titles have lately become an increasingly essential part of a working Elvis’s résumé.

For years, Elvis Presley Enterprises kept its distance from the impersonator community. That changed not long after the King’s daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, sold a majority interest in 2005. Open to new revenue streams and eager to protect the brand, the new EPE management brought tribute artists into the fold, hosting the first Ultimate contest in 2007. Now an annual event, it’s one of only two contests that now carry EPE’s blessing.

The first winner, Shawn Klush, now does 130 shows a year, including arenas in South America and reality TV in England. Other winners have played Presley in touring companies of the Broadway musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” Promoters estimate there are as many as 3,000 Elvis tribute artists in the world, but fewer than a dozen making a big salary from it. Most of those have won one of the top prizes.

Hendry hasn’t won yet, but last year he claimed a national non-EPE-sanctioned title, King of the World. And after sizing up the other talent for several years, he feels good about his place in the hierarchy. His voice is strong; his moves may be even better.

“Elvis had incredible rhythm,” he says. “I think I’m lucky to be a drummer.”

He’s still practicing, still studying, burnishing the tactics that could push his Elvis over the top. Watching the old clips again recently — Elvis doing “Polk Salad Annie,” the wild, bluesy rave-up that was a staple of his ’70s concerts — Hendry noticed something he’d never seen before. He demonstrates the move: Body tensed and quivering with the beat, his fist etching an urgent little question mark in the air, then jabbing the dot at the bottom, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

Even if you haven’t seen Elvis doing it, you can just picture Elvis doing it.

“If you want to be successful at anything,” Hendry says, “you’ve got to work at it.”

On a bright fall Saturday morning, 20 men are taking their turn on stage in the dark ballroom of the Clarion Resort Fontainebleau for the second round of preliminaries. Here you can see the basic building blocks of an Elvis tribute.

Matt Cage has the timbre of Elvis. The voice is practically a prerequisite, of course, and Cage, a 30-ish Elvis doing “Danny Boy” in a jumpsuit, is raising goosebumps with those rich, butterscotch tones. The goosebumps subside when he drops character between songs to joke about his excess of black hair dye.

Joe Ramsey has the lungs of Elvis. A tribute artist from Saratoga Springs, New York, his “Burning Love” doesn’t rock like Elvis’, but he shrewdly moves into a deeper cut, “Rags to Riches,” and when his tenor vibrates on those big Pavarotti notes (my fate is uuuhhh-uhhhp too-ooo youuuu-ouuu!), the audience leaps to its feet.

Bruce Stewart has the yelp of Elvis. In an Early Years pompadour and red jacket, he deploys that hiccuping sob in the upper register of the acrobatic ’50s songs: “Aaaanywayyyy you wa-ah, ah-ah, ahnt me!” And when Stewart talks as Elvis — bingo, there’s his extra-credit point:

“Well, we heard shum rockabilly. How about shum real rock ‘n’ roll?”

Stewart presses just the gentlest slur onto those s-words, and it works.

None of this may matter, though, judging by the polite commotion going on outside in the lobby outside the performance hall at this very moment …

Ladies and gentlemen, Doug Church has not left the building.

A veteran Elvis who’s highly favored in this competition, Church arrived here aglow from a victory two weeks earlier in Portage, his ticket to the Memphis championship already secured. Church sang first this morning, but he’s lingering in the lobby to pose for photos with the longtime fans who followed him to Maryland.

They call themselves the Churchgoers.

“He’s what we call the true voice of Elvis,” says Helen Miller, a fan from Philadelphia.

Patty Villanueva of Trenton was a Tom Jones fan for 30 years, no interest in Elvis whatsoever — until 2005, when a friend dragged her to see Church. So now she’s an Elvis fan? “I’m a Doug Church fan,” she says. In fact, she’s his fan club president.

Another fan approaches: “I’m going to tell you something about Doug Church that even he doesn’t know,” whispers the man. Rich St. Maur, of Stratford, New Jersey, says he has studied videotapes of all the top-tier ETAs, developing a point system to rank their skills. Klush scored an 88, Ultimate 2011 winner Cody Ray Slaughter an 83, and so on. Only one man could come close to the score of 98 that St. Maur gave Church — and that was Elvis Presley himself, with a score of 93.

“He is the second coming of Elvis,” St. Maur confides, “and he doesn’t realize it.”

Of all the men here, the 50-something performer from Mishiwaka, Indiana, may be the best-equipped to articulate the mechanics of an Elvis tribute. A full-time impersonator since 1990, Church also markets his own “Sing Like the King” instructional DVDs with tips on vibrato and pronunciation. This year marked his return to the circuit after a lengthy break. “My wife put me through Elvis boot camp,” he says of his preparation. What he learned:

– Elvis’ stance was always erect yet relaxed. Straight back, arms loose. Legs apart, his weight generally resting on one, gunfighter style.

– His movements were angular, those fierce diagonal arm swings in front of the body. Imagine handling a medicine ball, all motions exaggerated, bigger than life, with a powerful momentum and follow-through.

– He liked to switch the microphone from one hand to the other; if looking to the left, he was holding the mike in his right.

– And he smiled, a lot. “Even if you are in a serious moment, break it up now and then.”

Church flashes an easy smile, gleaming, white and even. Yep — the teeth of Elvis, all right.

 

Hendry, with the second-to-last slot in this round of competition, is upstairs in his hotel room getting ready. Foundation makeup evokes Elvis’s Greek-god glow, shadowy contour powder conjures Elvis’s sharp cheekbones, dark pencil outlines the eyes. He stretches to limber up before stepping into the jumpsuit, which is immaculately white, the deep V spanned by gold chains.

Later in the ballroom, waiting in the wings for his turn, Hendry closes his eyes and meditates briefly. Finds his focus. Gets in character.

Then he walks on stage. And for a few seconds, he just stands and gazes out at the room. It’s something Elvis did to calm his nerves, or just bask in the moment, and Hendry holds that moment well.

“Hello, Ocean City,” he rumbles. “Welcome to another day in paradise.”

A table of women from Philadelphia vibrates with excitement.

“Ohhhhhhh,” whispers one of them. “I love this.”

Hendry hasn’t sung a note, so they haven’t yet heard the little Elvis chuckle in his voice during “The Wonder of You,” or the Elvis cry in his voice during “Let It Be Me.” He hasn’t danced a step, so they haven’t yet seen him drop to one knee and let his backbone slip into the beat of “Suspicious Minds,” things that will later make them murmur “sexy!” and “Elvis reincarnated!”

All they’ve seen so far at this moment is this: That Tim E. Hendry has the saunter, the stare, and the shoulder-to-waist ratio of Elvis Presley — that long, lean V the Vegas tailors still speak of reverently, 40 years later. And Hendry looks great in that suit.

Of course, with so many Elvises here, one beautiful illusion is always undermined by the next. Hours later, the ladies from Philly are losing their minds again over the night’s headliner, 2012 Ultimate champion Ben Portsmouth, as he gyrates ecstatically through “Polk Salad Annie.” Oh yeah: The pelvis of Elvis.

Can the market really bear this many Elvises? “Well, Elvis is not coming back, is he?” Portsmouth says in his jarring offstage British accent. “And people still love him.”

But as the top 10 finalists compete Sunday, it looks as if all these eminent jumpsuit Elvises are about to be blown away by a kid in denim.

Brycen Katolinsky is 20. He is a loose-limbed, exuberant dancer who can windmill across the entire stage, just like the 20-year-old Elvis could. He’s got that young Elvis way of hanging his jaw and smiling sideways, and something of a young Elvis gleam in his eye. He has goals beyond Elvis — to act, and to sing his own songs, like Bruno Mars, who also started off as a young Elvis impersonator.

“You can’t stick with it too long,” says Katolinsky. “When I go onstage, I’m Elvis. When I’m off, I’m not. It’s acting. Some guys can’t turn it off.”

The audience stands and cheers after every song. You can imagine the EPE brass looking at an Elvis with the face and the energy of a boy-bander, and thinking: This is the future. But the buzz from the savants in the room is that it’s not yet Brycen’s time. He comes in fourth.

 

Doug Church wins first place and the $2,000 prize, but since he’s already Memphis-bound, the Ultimate berth goes to David Lee, the barrel-chested Birmingham, Alabama, native who comes in second.

Tim Hendry comes in third.

He’s disappointed. Was it song choice? In the finals, he led off with “Johnny B. Goode,” where he didn’t sound much like Elvis. Then again, Elvis didn’t sound much like Elvis whenever he sang the Chuck Berry hit, a song based more on yelling than crooning. Arguably, Hendry got it right on technical merit. Regardless: The challenge isn’t just competing with all the Elvises in the room, but with the Elvis in everyone’s head.

See a list of competition locations and dates at http://www.graceland.com/events/ultimate_eta_contest.aspx

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

Related Articles

970x250_DM_Leasing

Our Digital Sponsors

Latest Articles

Get our email updates

Stay up-to-date with the issues, companies and people that matter most to business in the Fort Worth.

  • Restaurants
  • Technology
  • and more!

FWBP Morning Brief

FWBP 5@5

Weekend Newsletter

  • Banking & Finance
  • Culture
  • Real Estate

Not ready to subscribe?

Try a few articles on us.

Enter your email address and we will give you access to three articles a month, to give us a try. You also get an opportunity to receive our newsletter with stories of the day.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.