The first time I heard “Blue Suede Shoes” wasn’t on iTunes, Pandora or YouTube. It was sung live on an Ypsilanti bandstand by a 20-year-old Elvis Presley impersonator named Nick Miller. He was pretty good.
Who knew that Ypsi played host to “one of the largest Elvis festivals in the world?” Not I! I found out about Michigan ElvisFest – now in its 13th year of existence – through one of those free alternative weeklies you get at the public library. Having never consciously heard an Elvis Presley song in my life, I was curious.
Introduction to the King
ElvisFest can best be described as a lo-fi affair. Whereas music festivals like Bonnaroo and Pitchfork promise a weekend of blistering auditory overload, ElvisFest boasts just one soundstage with an audience mostly comprised of people my grandparents’ age amicably sitting in beach chairs.
Particularly noticeable about the festival was the lack of Elvis memorabilia. Sure, there were the usual suspects – cardboard stars with sayings like “King of Rock‘n’Roll” and “You never walked in that man’s shoes,” Elvis soup tureens, car carpets, life-sized cutouts, sunglasses with furry sideburns waggling from the frames. But the merchandise was mostly sold by one or two small vendors, and there didn’t seem to be the mad dash to actually purchase the wares like, say, after a rock concert, where the most ardent fans will swarm toward the merch counter like ants protecting their queen. At ElvisFest, the main attraction, for most of the attendees, was the music.
And wow, was the music something. Large and sweaty, Elvis impersonator Robert Washington crooned lovely somethings in a tight, white tasseled jumpsuit to the screaming ladies below him. Tall, tanned Matt King, gold buttons festooned on a black jumpsuit and matching cape, pinwheeled across the stage in a nonstop paroxysm of adrenaline. My friend, herself an avid Elvis fan, told me her favorite artist of the night was University alum Chris Ayotte, who not only managed to flawlessly recreate classic Elvis moves but also put his own spin on them (she tried to explain one to me – something to do with a curtain?).
A giggly group of retirees in cerulean Hawaiian shirts and plastic flowers in their hair from Columbus, Ohio, stayed up by the stage the entire night, extending their hands each time an Elvis threw down a scarf or bent to give them a kiss. They were so enthusiastic that the emcee dubbed them “Girls Gone Wild 1965.”
The festival was occasionally bracketed by accompanying acts riding on the coattails of the Elvis fanaticism permeating the park. A lukewarm “Great Balls of Fire” was sung by a Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator, which nobody paid much attention to. There’s a reason why there aren’t many Jerry Lee Lewis tribute festivals in the world.
I was drawn to a pair of ladies in matching sun hats, wearing floor-length cloth skirts with Elvis heads embossed on the fabric (one blue, one red): Phyllis Sanders and her granddaughter Maria. Though Phyllis had been a proud attendee of almost every ElvisFest since its inception, it was Maria’s first time. She said her favorite Elvis songs were “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Jailhouse Rock,” but she couldn’t really choose. “I just love them all,” she said.
I spoke to them right after King finished up, ending his set by tossing out dark scarves to the audience beneath him. “I was sad you didn’t get one,” Maria said to her grandmother. “That’s OK, I’ve gotten them before,” she replied cheerfully.
Sanders couldn’t sit still for the entirety of the festival, pumping her fist to the rat-tat-tat of the beat, grooving to each guitar lick. She said she saw Elvis live three times when she was a little girl but was so far away from the stage she needed binoculars. The Michigan ElvisFest was deemed to be “much more awesome.”
Hair is Everything
On Tuesday, August 16, 1977, Elvis Aaron Presley was found on the bathroom floor of his home, clad in nothing but a pair of blue pajamas. An hour later, he was pronounced dead.
Months after Presley’s death, mournful fans crammed into Las Vegas floor shows and tiny nightclubs to watch Elvis impersonators recreate the magic of the King. For the Elvis Tribute Artists (or ETAs), these shows proved to be enormously profitable. Alan Meyer, who worked in a Las Vegas lounge act, claimed to have earned more than a million dollars in one year.
Here’s what I picked up on the culture of ETAs: Hair is everything. A full pompadour, black with no blue, with a ducktail and long sideburns, shows your legitimacy as a “real” Elvis. Natural black is best, though wigs, if styled right, work too.
Your weight will determine what type of Elvis you will be able to impersonate. The general rule: “The heavier you are, the later you go in the decades,” said King. The youngest, thinnest Elvis impersonators go for the snappy cat clothes of the ’50s, those a little heavier don the black leather pants and plain white suits of the late ’60s, studs and stones make their appearance in the mid-’70s, while glittering cabochons and rhinestones – called the “pinnacle of elaborateness in the Elvis costume” – last up to the period when Presley died.
There are no restrictions to who can become an Elvis impersonator. You can even be an elected official, like Bruce Borders. Indiana House of Representative (and former mayor) by day, Elvis impersonator by night, Borders still performs as Elvis in high schools around the state. “It’s a way for me to relax from the headaches of being mayor,” he said in the book “I Am Elvis.”
Some ETAs, like Michigan ElvisFest co-founder Matt King, get their start at young ages. At 14, King sang “Blue Suede Shoes” in front of his high school freshman class. After his teacher marveled at his physical and vocal resemblance to Presley, King started competing in Elvis look-a-like contests and traveling across the country. So far, King has 45 replica jumpsuits and 75 puffy sleeved shirt bell-bottom outfits. “(Elvis) had 200 jumpsuits, so I’m not there yet,” he said.
His favorite memory was performing where Elvis held his last concert — Market Square Arena in Indiana. With a live 12-piece band blaring in the background and the arena packed to capacity, King got to stand in the same spot as the King of Rock‘n’Roll had, wearing the same replica outfit that Elvis wore many years previous. “It was kind of cool,” he said.
And what’s the relationship between all the Elvis impersonators? Friends or enemies?
“Most of us are friends, though some of us have rivalries,” King said. “It reminds you a lot of beauty pageants. There’s some people who are out there to stab you in the back and there are other people who are there just because they’re in love with performing.”
Elvis to El Vez
King loves interacting with his fans, though he admitted some of them can get pretty crazy.
“You meet a lot of fans that … think you actually are Elvis,” he said. “They shake when they talk to you. It’s kinda weird.”
Perhaps the weirdest thing about the culture surrounding Elvis is the existence of impersonators who don’t look anything like the rockabilly king.
Over the years, El Vez (real name Robert Lopez) has made a living singing and dancing as “the Mexican Elvis.” Backed by the sassy sounds of the beehived Lovely Elvettes (Gladysita, Priscilita, Lisa Maria and Que Linda Thompson), most of the songs he performs are literal translations of Elvis standards into Spanish – “Esta Bien Mamacita” (That’s Alright, Mama), “Huaraches Azul” (Blue Suede Shoes), “Viva La Raza” (Viva Las Vegas). And El Vez’s costumes are Mexican re-interpretations of Elvis outfits: a jumpsuit with red, white and green rhinestones and a sequined Virgin of Guadalupe on the back, a maroon crushed velvet jumpsuit with a matching cape and silver lamé lining, a black mariachi suit with white piping. Every outfit has a matching sombrero.
“This person isn’t any more like Elvis than anything you could imagine,” said John Stuart, a producer of the Legends in Concert series in the book “Impersonating Elvis.”
“There’s nothing even close, other than the fact that the jumpsuit is white. And yet they’ll still do it.”
It’s part faithful nostalgia, part staunch allegiance that will cause the fans to go crazy over the charms of Mr. Vez and others of his kind.
“Certain songs just hit me and I start crying. I just – I miss (Elvis), I really do,” said ardent festival-goer Carol Rice in the book “Impersonating Elvis.” “After all these years. I just wish I could go to a concert and see him again, you know?”