Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Those Gyrating Moves: A History of the Tribute Artists Who Emulate The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll

Tupelo in June never has a shortage of Elvis tribute artists as each year they flock there for the annual Elvis Presley Festival, which includes an Elvis tribute competition. (Photograph by Ken Flynt, LEGENDS)

Mary Pat Van Epps is quick to explain the difference between a true Elvis Presley tribute artist and the deservedly-maligned “impersonator.”

The impersonator – sporting polyester shirts, tennis shoes and stick-on sideburns – gives Elvis a bad name, said the Memphis resident, who for the past twenty years has made a hobby of spotting the real thing from a fake. “They’re fine at karaoke bars, but they don’t need to be out representing Elvis,” she said.

Most tribute performers are Elvis aficionados and want to honor Elvis in a respectful and professional way, she said.

(Photograph by Ken Flynt, LEGENDS)

The first tribute artist to be sanctioned by Elvis’ family was a Texan named Johnny Harra. Harra gained traction as the prominent Elvis tribute act shortly after Elvis passed away in 1977. He portrayed Presley in the 1982 film, “This is Elvis,” and is reported to have still been gigging in 2011, just two weeks before he, himself, passed away.

Bassist Ronnie Goss of Meridian remembers him well; his band toured with Harra back in the 1980s. Goss said the backing band had no official name for the tour, but often performed at the time with the name “Statesboro.” He said the group had been playing together for a year or so when a promoter approached them about doing some dates with Harra.”

Audiences in both Meridian and Memphis were receptive to the show, he said. Women often followed Harra around, and fans literally fought for the silk scarves Harra handed audience members at shows, much like Elvis would have.
“He played the part well,” Goss said. “He had the voice, the outfit, the teddy bears, the scarves … ”

Goss said his stories from the road are too wild to share and admits “the van was a little too rock ‘n’ roll for the show. We weren’t quite pure enough for some people.”

There is photographic proof of Harra’s affect on audiences.

“Somebody found three videos on YouTube of the concert we did in Memphis, converted from 8 mm,” he said. The sound and video quality aren’t great, but the old films show how the audience enjoyed Harra’s depiction of the music idol. “You can see the enthusiasm of the audience,” he said. “I’m not sure if he actually pegged Elvis, but it was real close.”

Van Epps was a college student when Elvis served his famous stint in the Army. Then she started a family and never had an opportunity to see him in a live show. She had always loved his music, especially the ballads “Love me Tender” and “The Wonder of You,” but it wasn’t until her children were grown that she had time for what has now become a major devotion.

“I was not a lunatic until about 22 years ago,” laughed Van Epps, now in her late 60s. “I went to Graceland … I’d never been to Graceland.” Since then, she has accumulated a huge collection of Elvis-themed collectibles. She has a room filled floor to ceiling with memorabilia. Hanging in the room is also a collection of colorful scarves she’s been given over the years by various tribute performers.

One favorite is Bill Cherry, winner of the 2009 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist competition, held each year at Graceland during Elvis Week (this year’s event is scheduled for August 8 through 16). With preliminary rounds officially sanctioned by Elvis Presley Enterprises and held at spots across the United States and abroad, competitors are chosen who will then move on to the final August showdown in Memphis. Cherry won at the Tupelo preliminaries in 2009 and is credited with being the first tribute artist to win the ultimate titles at both the Tupelo and Memphis competitions in the same year.

(Photograph by Ken Flynt, LEGENDS)

For Cherry, winning the contest set in motion a career that has earned him accolades. He’s been recognized by Time magazine as one of the 10 best, and has been given the “Heart of the King” award by the Las Vegas Hilton, where Elvis himself performed. Cherry is now with the “Elvis Lives Tour,” sponsored by Legends in Concert out of Las Vegas.

Cherry said he “grew up” with the King. His father was a minister; his mom loved Elvis.

“We watched Elvis movies, and after, I’d grab an Elvis record off the rack and go into the other room and start to sing the songs,” Cherry said. “I started singing to the records as young as six years old.”
By around age 12, he would do a little mock show at home. He’d don jeans, a white button-down shirt, and would spray “something” in his then-blonde hair to color it black. He’d make a grand entrance down the hallway, and his father would craft a spotlight from a flashlight.

“He’d actually shake it to make it like a strobe light,” Cherry reminisced. “All my life it’s kind of been a part of me … but I didn’t come out of the closet until later.”

He spent years honing his craft, paying attention to vocal details and trying to understand the way Elvis operated.
“Elvis’ movements onstage were not choreographed like Michael Jackson’s,” he said. “When he moved, it’s just because he felt like it. The thing for me is basically relax and let it flow, that’s what Elvis did.”

Cherry’s “coming out” as a tribute performer happened in the ’80s, when he began to do smaller competitions not affiliated with the Presley estate. He stopped in 1995 because he felt Elvis’ image – a polyester-clad, overweight singer – had gotten out of hand.
“It became to me like a joke,” he said. “With my love for Elvis, I didn’t want to be affiliated with that crowd.”
Then Cherry was laid off from his full-time job as a welder at a steel foundry. A friend talked him into launching his tribute artist career.

By 2009, he had won the ultimate title. “It was like a domino effect … I won the contest, and I’ve been doing this ever since.”
Performers each year emulate the moves and tunes of the King at preliminaries such as the Tupelo Elvis Festival. The 2015 Tupelo contest, held June 4-7, was won by Brazilian attorney Diogo Leichtweis. The event included tribute artists from six states and four countries, and drew a crowd of 10,000 during its 4-day festival.

“We call it the Elvis world, the Elvis family,” Van Epps said. “Elvis people understand Elvis people. We understand the gift that he was from God … this is my fun, and I enjoy sitting in the front row and getting scarves.”

Van Epps said she’s done a few zany things. She made a YouTube video with a friend giving lessons to “the elderly” in how to win over tribute artists and score a scarf.

As with any good tribute artist, Cherry gets his share of devotion. He is flattered at the excitement of his audience, and recalled the time a senior citizen fell over after he gave her a scarf from onstage.

“If they want my autograph, I’m honored, but I think, ‘Who am I?’ Why do they want my autograph?” he said.
Elvis is still powerful, even nearly four decades after his death, Cherry said.

“I think it’s almost become religious,” he said, adding that even Elvis would be surprised by the legacy he created. One tribute artist he knew was accused of visiting Elvis’ Memorial Garden grave site more often than his own father’s.

“My only concern is that years down the road, the image of Elvis does not get diluted so much that we forget what he was about,” Cherry said.

“Lord knows,” said Van Epps, “We all can sing along to every single song. I hope it never goes away. It would be a loss to the world.”

Story by Kara Martinez Bachman
Story and photos courtesy Legends Magazine

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