This is a love story. A story I share with every person who is head over heels with the same man as me, Elvis Presley, and the city he called home, Memphis, Tennessee. Although our doting stories of devotion may sound similar, we all arrived to that adoration by our own path, in our own time.
My father was an Elvis fan. He was the first Elvis fan I personally knew. That is also my first recollection of Elvis. My second, was about his death. My aunt had just picked up an order at a local pizza joint and the big burly man behind the counter told her the devastating news. He fought back tears, she said, but she could not. She got in her car and “bawled my eyes out." She did not want to believe it. The phrase “Elvis has left the building,” would take on a whole new solemn meaning.
I traveled to Memphis this past August to experience Elvis Week for a book I’m writing about a female conductor, an elderly southern black man, and an Elvis Tribute Artist. It’s a concoction of personalities, that are still coming to fruition on the page. I knew experiencing Elvis Week would give me more substance to work with. I considered myself a general fan of Elvis and had no idea what I was getting into when I stepped out of the airport.
First impression: Memphis is simply beautiful! If you haven’t seen the Hernando De Soto bridge from the edge of the Mississippi River, either by night or day, believe me when I say "It's a glorious view." Memphis is unlike any other city I’ve been to. It has an undercurrent, a vibe, that you can feel in your bones. The streets seethe with the blues, humidity, friendly folks, fried chicken, racial intolerance, MLK’s mission, art, struggle and a palpable love for Elvis Presley. You can’t take the good without taking the bad, as it’s this ying-yang that makes Memphis the city that it is.
Elvis isn’t the only famous man to die in this great city. Memphis has been tallying up the deaths of notable men all along: from Robert Church (the man who established Beale Street and was the first African American millionaire) to Martin Luther King. You can feel the past of those men, too, but it’s Elvis's spirit that is very much alive and well. During Elvis week, his songs are played in nearly every establishment. You turn left, you turn right, and there’s a statue, a dedication, a marker of some sort for him. You can’t escape the ghost of him, and you don’t want to. The more Elvis you experience, the more you want.
The week is highlighted by the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest, wherein the top echelon of Elvis Tribute Artist (ETAs) compete in an intense performance battle to be crowned the ETA King. In order to compete, the artist needs to win first place at one of the designated Official Elvis Competitions that are held worldwide. The qualified winners are then invited to compete during Elvis Week.
Twenty-four artists, fluent in every Elvis song, move, and facial expression take the stage one by one over a two day competition. I sat next to an elderly couple who told me that this event was on their Bucket List. They had tickets to see Elvis Presley in 1977, then he died. Those tickets are still in their possession. Coming to an event like this “is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing him. We had to come before we die,” the old man said. He would close his eyes during a few performances and then jump out of his seat as the song ended. He’d scream “Unbelievable!” and clap wildly. I too found myself giving standing ovations to these artists that skillfully blurred the lines between reality and illusion.
Elvis Presley did die too soon. Fans haven’t received enough of him. He still has a magnetic pull, the ability to attract people from all over the world to attend Elvis Week. If we can’t have the real Elvis, we’ll take the impersonators… but only the very best.
The ETAs not only have to look like him, but they have to channel his stage presence and most importantly, sound like him. Entering the sold out Orpheum Theater, with See See Rider playing along with a huge, red E-L-V-I-S sign flashing to the beat, is entering a world of its own, a vortex devoted to The King. There are truly no fans like Elvis fans. If you aren’t infected by the Elvis bug after attending this event, then I can see no explanation other than something is amiss in your amygdala - the part of the brain that processes emotion.
Elvis is pure love and emotion. And he was just one cool dude.
While I was there investigating the world of ETAs for my book, I met Marc. He was there for work, investigating a murder. Aside from being a Defense Investigator, he also happened to be a native Memphian. He gave me a walking tour of downtown, pointing out gun battles on Gayoso Street and the famous homeless woman living across the street from the Civil Rights Museum. He rattled off his knowledge of Black History, the Mississippi River, and of course, Elvis, as if he had cheat sheets to a history exam in his back pocket. He states growing up in Memphis, learning about Elvis is as natural as learning English grammar. It’s expected. He said, “You start learning about Elvis the moment you’re delivered.” It's my hope that the generation being born today in Memphis is still being schooled on his legacy. Marc quickly assessed my interests: Elvis and history. He won me over with both.
Our love for Elvis has become an integral part of our own relationship. Our first selfie together (below) was in front of an Elvis statue. The first gift he gave me was a book on Memphis and the most notorious street there, Beale Street. The second gift Marc gave me was a pair of Lansky Bros. Black/Pink Argyle socks - they are known to be Elvis’s favorite. To get my day going, he knows to serve me coffee in my Elvis mug. And when he's away for work, he understands my occasional need to answer his Face Time call wearing replica Elvis sunglasses I bought in Tupelo, Elvis's birthplace. Yes, Elvis is the third person in our relationship - we listen to him, we talk about him, and we are still trying to figure out the algorithm to his continued phenomenon.
The consensus is that Elvis was a “Great Guy”. He gave unselfishly to charities and to loved ones. He made his concerts affordable. He was a true entertainer and vocalist. Watching his Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite performance, he didn’t have a huge stage production with an elaborate light show and dancers. He had his voice, his karate moves, and his snazzy outfits. He was the centerpiece. His talent alone was enough. It’s estimated that approximately 1.5 billion (that's Billion with a "B") people worldwide viewed this performance. In the 70's the world population had not reached 4 billion; therefore, one-third of the world's people watched the televised performance of Elvis from Hawaii.
Elvis Week closes with a candlelight vigil the eve of his death date, August 16th. The wall surrounding Graceland is graffitied with love, with memories, with dedications to Elvis. The procession to his grave is respectful and emotional and about a one-and-a-half hour walk once passing the gates. The line moves slow, nobody is in a rush. We are all coming to pay respects to the man that brought us here. There are those that weep, and it’s difficult not to when an amplifier is playing his baritone-tenor voice overhead, and those that line the street with their makeshift shrines.
You’d think that a full week of Elvis would be enough. Nope. I arrived a fan; I left a die hard. Since August, I want to listen to Elvis every day. I know which songs to stay away from if I'm feeling melancholy: This is the Story, Without Love and Tomorrow Never Comes. These three songs will sink you into total despair! I know which songs to YouTube when I want to hear a good jam and see his body thrust: Polk Salad Annie or Suspicious Minds (Go ahead, click the link, watch his body thrust). Yeah, the 70's era of Elvis is my favorite. And when I just want to hear the inner being of Elvis, ANY of his gospel tunes meet my needs.
There will never be another Elvis, not even through the best ETAs, like 2012 Champ Ben Portsmouth, who is one of the most incredible ETAs traveling the world. This year will mark 39 years since Elvis's death. Today would have been his 81st Birthday. Elvis has got his Mojo Working: pulling people together, giving them new memories, a great time, and making them fall in love with him over and over. I’ve joined his fans in saying: In Elvis I Trust.
My father was right: Elvis is the best entertainer to ever live. It's taken me 43 years to recognize this. I venture to say that anyone over age 40 has an Elvis story of some kind. This is mine and it's a Love Story - a Love Story that seems to have no end.
Long Live The King of Rock & Roll.
(If you have to time to click on only one link, I suggest the link to Ben Portsmouth's David Letterman appearance, or Elvis's Polk Salad Annie or Suspicious Minds - ENJOY!)