Sunday, April 7, 2013

BLUE SUEDE SAFARI: A TWO DAY EXPEDITION IN THE JUNGLES OF TRIBUTE ARTISTS, COMPETITIVE ENTERTAINING, AND THE ALPHA DADDY OF ROCK 'N' ROLL


I had no real idea what to expect when I decided to check out Blue Suede Memories III at the Electric Park Ballroom in Waterloo a couple of weeks ago. 

I have on occasion run across the Elvis impersonator in the past and in all honesty, I never found the experience to be all that enriching. Not that I paid much attention, but the guys who were appearing at the grand opening of some new hardware store, or at some other parking lot event with their karaoke machine and Elvis wig and sunglasses, weren't really able to hold much of an audience. I mean if the guy twisting balloons into the shapes of animals is drawing a bigger crowd; then the chances of getting a cynical and jaded curmudgeon such as myself interested isn't something I'd want to bet any money on.

Yet this isn't a story about that kind of a thing. Far from it. My preconceptions of this event were greatly misinformed by my previous experiences. You see, what went down at the Blue Suede Memories event was not on the order of any of the drek that I had previously witnessed and had mistakenly thought was pretty much the entire kit and caboodle of the Elvis Tribute world. What I saw was quality entertainment. The guys and gals performing were not hacks but real talented people who really understand entertaining and also, as you would probably have guessed, really love Elvis.

I had no idea that this kind of thing (Elvis Tribute Artists) was operating at the levels that it is, and that it actually has been for several years. Then again that maybe isn't so surprising because very often I'm the guy running after the bus once it's already taken off as far as trends go, so why should this be any different? But even a Johnny come lately such as myself will sometimes make it to the party before it breaks up and I'm glad to have made the scene here.


The  2009 world champion, Jesse Aron. While he 
didn't compete this year, he did perform twice -
as Roy Orbison on Friday and Elvis on Saturday.  
Blue Suede Memories III was a tribute to Elvis competition in which a number of top-tier Elvis Tribute artists came to compete for prizes and to earn a spot at the next level of the competition that takes place in Memphis. 

Aside from the competition, the 2009 world champion Jesse Aron performed two shows, The first being a Roy Orbison tribute on Friday night, and then on Saturday, his tribute to Elvis.  Aside from being a really nice guy, he put on a fantastic performance. I was personally partial to his Orbison set which was great. Roy Orbison is not an easy act to pull of with any kind of legitimacy, but Jesse did it. His Elvis was great too (he is a world champ ya know) but there was a lot of Elvis, so it was refreshing to see a bit of something else.



One of the impersonators, "Irv" poses with a fan. 

As far the competition goes, each guy comes out and does a three song set each night. They suit up and come out on stage and deliver their best Elvis performance. Being a better singer than the other guy isn't necessarily going to get you the prize in this competition. As Ronny Craig, one of the producers of the event said, "We want the best Elvis Illusionist." In other words a guy could come out and knock everybody dead with a smokin' hot performance, but if they don't do it the way Elvis would have done it, it's gonna cost 'em. So it really helps not only to be a good performer but an Elvis scholar as well. I really have to say that I respect the amount of work this kind of thing takes to be good. 

As Larry Tuttle, one of the judges, explained to me, "In a competition there's more pressure for them to perform songs the way Elvis did them, they can't change the words or mannerisms, they have to have the charisma. When they do a show like Jesse is, he can interact with the crowd more. They can bring a little bit of their own style. In the competition they can't."

Of course where would any performance be without a band. In fact, to pull this kind of thing off at the level that this event was, you have to have an incredible group of musicians, and this is just what was delivered. Change Of Habit out of Chicago, backed up all of the guys (and one gal - no she wasn't performing as Elvis). This band is one of two that are endorsed by Graceland. They play the big competition in Memphis which has something like 95 guys doing Elvis performances. The band does not rehearse with any of the performers for the competitions, and yet you wouldn't be able to guess such a thing based on the way they play.

The process is that the Elvis Tribute Artist sends the band a play list of the songs and the version of the songs. From that point on there isn't any collaboration on the music until showtime, and it is up to the Elvis performer to know what he's doing because, trust me, the band certainly does. I was fortunate enough to get a minute with Joe Scumaci, One of the back up singers in the band, and asked him how problematic this can be. "If the Elvis knows the version no problem. Periodically you'll have a problem because somebody is used to their track, their karaoke tracks or something along those lines That might be slightly off from the original Elvis version; and when that happens we're going to follow them...we're going to vamp on a certain chord till he catches it, or we're going to lead him into the next progression and hopefully the judges didn't know."

This band also backs up other tribute artists who do everything from Elton John to Garth Brooks to Cher. The story is pretty much the same for a show as it is for a competition, they don't rehearse with the artists. These cats just roll in and lay it down. Their professionalism and level of musical chops are first rate. They're tight, loud, and also have a bit of a raw edge to them but it's the kind that comes from understanding what it is they are and a passion for the sound. It is still a rock 'n' roll show after all.

So I'm lurking about this thing for two days. Talking to people, listening to the music, and basically soaking up the atmosphere around me. I had finally started coming to the realization that this was not at all the kind of thing I had expected, and this was causing me some small level of consternation. My preconceptions had already caused me to have a line on how I was going to write this thing. I didn't think I was gonna hate it, but I also wasn't gonna be surprised if I found it to be a group of people on some kind of hokey and hollow nostalgia trip. Maybe a gathering of folks who were using the Elvis impersonator as some kind of half baked talisman to invoke, to some small degree the sweet memories of days gone by. And true, there may well have been some of that, but what I experienced is what is really a celebration of the man called Elvis Presley. A real tribute to the King.

It is somewhat amazing to me that Elvis is still commanding this level of devotion and adulation from people this long after his death. He really did have meaning in peoples lives that, outside of maybe a few religious figures, no one else has really been able to touch. The thing of it is, this thing, call it the Cult of Elvis if you will, seems to be getting bigger all the time. I have to say that I may not completely understand it, but I sure can respect it. Elvis had something about him that connected in some very important and intimate ways with people, and it's still happening. This isn't just some trip for an older generation that will die out once all of the people around during the era that Elvis lived are gone. People from other generations are latching onto the guy's legacy and his music. I mean you can argue whether or not Elvis invented rock 'n' roll, but there is no question that he was the atom bomb. After Elvis exploded on the scene nothing was ever the same again. It's probably impossible to overstate the influence and impact that the man had, not only on music but culture as a whole.




Jesse Aron in action Saturday night. 

What other entertainer has inspired so many, from around the world to pick up the torch and go out and do shows performing as Elvis? I mean most of these guys that I saw were very talented guys, so why not start your own band?  In talking with a couple of the Elvis Tribute Artists about this I got various responses, but it all boiled down to kind of the same thing: Elvis and his music had a big impact on the lives of these performers. It's a kind of devotion. Jesse Aron said, " I'm just a big fan. This is kind of my way of showing how big of a fan I am I guess. It's my expression of it."

According to impersonator GaryElvis Britt, "Unless you are a professional
golfer, I don't see how you could have more fun."

Another of the Elvis Tribute Artists is a guy named GaryElvis Britt. He had his name legally changed from Gary to GaryElvis. I know that some of you out there could see that as being a little over the top but I can say that I found GaryElvis to be one of the most down to earth people I have ever had the pleasure of talking to. He played college football for Bear Bryant, has been in a few movies, has found success in business, and is a first rate raconteur. He finds it a fun way to make a living and He has a deep and profound respect for Elvis. "You could not create an Elvis Presley today." He said. "He was one of a kind. To have a 22 year career and do the things that he did... nobody is that talented... and that forthright." GaryElvis also writes his own songs and performs them in his shows. It seems that the really good musicians and entertainers add their own style to their shows, which would tend to make them even more interesting than the competitions, I would have to guess.



Eventual winner Robert Washington

Robert Washington, who went on to win the competition, told me that his first exposure to Elvis was watching his movies on TV as a young kid in the 60s. "I thought he was pretty cool. You know... He got the girl, lost the girl, got in a couple of fights, and then he got the girl in the end. I just thought that was so cool." Robert said as he got a little older he started really getting into the music, buying his records. When he was 16 or 17 he saw Elvis live and from then on he was a hardcore fan.

So really The people behind Blue Suede Memories have pulled off a real quality event. The people putting these shows together have had the foresight and vision to take something that was once done in the VFW halls and bowling alleys, often with sub par performers, and transformed it into top tier entertainment. A lot of people have invested a lot of money, effort, and hard work into making this a great night out. It is well worth buying a ticket. Lets face it, this is a whole lot more cool than Riverdance, and you know it's gonna beat the crap out of Green Day's musical.

A big thank you to everyone at the Blue Suede Memories III who made everything a smooth experience. A special thanks to Maryanne Harris who could not have been more accommodating. Also thanks to Donna Volker, Ronny Craig, Joe Scumaci, Jesse Aron, Robert Washington, GaryElvis Britt, and all the other people who I should thank by name but can't remember.



Photos of Blue Suede Memories III by Lori Shepherd


Reactions:

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

This event sounds like a blast! Nice write up.

Anonymous said...

Hello All,
This Maryanne Harris from The Blue Suede Memories III event.
I want to say Thank you for all of the wonderful things you guys said. You are Welcome to return because in 2014 this event wi be 3 days long. More ETA's more songs more Elvis memories to relive.
Bigfoot Diaries thank you so much again. See you iin 2014.

Anonymous said...

...great review Dave - you're not easy to impress - and great job on the photos Lori! just might have to add this to my bucket list!
-Sarah

Anonymous said...

This was an AMAZING write-up that couldn't have been stated better!!! I try to tell some friends & relatives just what a professional show this is, but until you convince them to go see it, they just don't get it! Fortunately the ones I've gotten to come are returning the next time with lots of their friends! As Ronnie would say, "Yeah, Baby!!!"