Into the fray
I literally have dozens of post ideas for The Mystery Train Blog ready to go at any given time. In fact, I find Elvis to be such a fascinating subject that I have more ideas than I will ever be able to use here. When it comes to this blog, I often lack for time, but never for ideas.
Earlier this week, I threw in a “bonus” post when I came across an opinion by a fellow Elvis blogger to which I just had to respond. This blogger’s belief is that if one never had a chance to see Elvis Presley perform in person, then watching an imitator is the next best thing.
I was two-years-old when Elvis died, so I’m one of those people who never saw Elvis in person. My dissenting post was an unplanned, off-the-cuff piece which generated responses on both sides of the issue. You can read it here: “As close as I’ll ever get.”
Essentially, my thoughts on the matter boiled down to two key positions:
1.) Watching footage and listening to audio of the real Elvis in concert is the next best thing to seeing him in person – not imitators
2.) Elvis Presley Enterprises should maintain focus on the real Elvis and stay out of the Elvis imitator business
One of the responses was a well-reasoned comment by fellow Elvis fan Jim Kendall:
“[Elvis Tribute Artists] and impersonators serve a purpose. They keep the memory of Elvis alive and continue to expose him to new generations. Everything has a shelf life and I believe the Elvis phenomena only has about 25-35 years left on the shelf. Everyone who knew Elvis personally will be dead and the majority of fans will be too old to care. Despite your misgivings about the imitators you’re missing out on some great shows, more importantly you’re missing out on meeting people who know Elvis and fans who have seen him in concert. Their eyes light up, often misted by holding back tears, when they share their memories and for a moment you are closer to Elvis then you can ever get from a DVD.
If the ETAs and EPE stop what they are doing then the memory of Elvis will be regulated to the books of music history.”
Rather than reply to Jim at the original post, I’ve decided to create a new post on this subject and bump what I originally planned to post this weekend to next weekend.
First of all, I want to thank Jim for taking the time to voice his opinion in such a thoughtful way and inspiring today’s post. Being human, we’re all going to disagree at times, but I’m always impressed when someone can articulate a contrary position without resorting to attacking the other person. Jim raises many good points that I would like to address today.
The end of the Elvis Presley phenomena
People have been predicting the end of the “Elvis Presley phenomena” since the mid-1950s. “He can’t last. I tell you flatly, he can’t last,” Jackie Gleason is reported to have said of Elvis in 1956, and that is but one example from that time period.
When Elvis was drafted into the US Army in 1958, many more thought the phenomena was finished, but he came back with a bang after his two-year stint.
When he was seemingly lost in Hollywood for much of the 1960s, the phenomena again seemed to have reached its end.
Elvis, however, tore back on the scene in the late 1960s in a comeback that propelled him well into the next decade. In 1977, Elvis’ prescription drug addiction and abuse contributed to his untimely death at the age of 42. Surely, the phenomena was over at this point, many said.
Yet, it turned out, that not even Elvis could destroy the Elvis Presley phenomena. Year after year, fans old and new alike around the world have continued to enjoy his music. Annually, over 600,000 people visit his home and final resting place, Graceland. Elvis also has the somewhat dubious distinction of being one of the top-earning dead celebrities each year. His earnings power actually stacks up quite well against many living celebrities, too.
The Elvis Presley phenomena continues. Jim believes we will finally see the end of it about 30 years from now – which would be about 2043. If he’s right, what an incredible run that would have been.
Given the history of such predictions, though, I’m not even going to venture a guess as to whether Jim is right on when it will end. The phenomena has changed and adapted over the years, and that will no doubt continue.
Life after Elvis
While Elvis obviously sustained it in life, who or what has kept that phenomena going so strong since 1977?
Jim claims Elvis imitators have kept the memory alive and exposed Elvis to subsequent generations.
This may surprise you, but I think Jim may be on to something. I actually agree with him, but only from a certain perspective.
People express themselves as fans of anything in different ways. There are sports fans who paint their bodies in team colors when attending each game, while other fans obsess over statistics or even manage fantasy teams.
There are Star Wars fans who dress as Imperial stormtroopers and raise large sums of money for charity, and there are fans who pore over the details of the makings of the films.
There are art fans who enjoy taking in the occasional museum, while others are true connoisseurs who know the details of any work from a particular era.
The point is that people express their interests in different ways, and there is no “right way” to be a fan.
In the Elvis world, a fan might express herself through incredible writing, while another might express himself through compiling and sharing detailed notes on Elvis’ recordings. One fan might create beautiful art, while another might occasionally sing his songs. Some fans might just listen to his music, and, yes, some true fans might even impersonate him in tribute.
While the work of Ernst Jorgensen, Peter Guralnick, Todd Morgan, and so many others have also contributed in no small part, I believe Elvis fans are the ones primarily responsible for keeping his memory alive and this phenomena going in the more than 35 years that have gone by since his death.
I believe that only a certain percentage of Elvis imitators are actually Elvis fans. Among us Elvis fans, I believe only a small percentage are Elvis imitators (in public, anyway).
So, yes, some Elvis imitators who also happen to be Elvis fans have helped keep his memory alive. However, they are just a small part of the overwhelming force of Elvis fans who have done that. Imitators are simply not the primary reason the world still talks about and is still interested in Elvis.
Defending the legacy
I also contend that there are many Elvis imitators that actually damage the legacy of Elvis Presley. In fact, I believe that Elvis imitators are second only to “Elvis faked his death” hucksters in responsibility for turning Elvis into a frequent punchline.
Elvis fans have to battle against misconceptions that many imitators cause. I am happy to defend why I am a fan of Elvis to anyone who cares to know, but the first step in that is always to get that person to understand that the Elvis music I know and respect has absolutely nothing to do with the imitators that he or she sees spotlighted in various places.
The fans, including some of the imitators, may be driving the Elvis Presley phenomena now, but it is the music, television appearances, and movies that Elvis left behind that still fuel it.
If Elvis Presley’s legacy is to survive or wither away in coming years, it should do so on this cherished source material. As long as people look to Elvis’ authentic body of work to make the judgment, I believe his legacy will meet that test – every single time.
Circus of imposters
I was forced to endure the show of an Elvis imitator in the lobby of a movie theater while in line to see a screening of Elvis On Tour a few years ago. This imitator had an authentic jumpsuit, a decent voice, and some okay moves. I’m sure he was a fan, not just an imitator.
I made no connection with his show, though. In fact, they could not open up the cinema doors fast enough for me so that I could get out of that lobby and let the real Elvis on the big screen wash that imitation away. I have avoided returning to that theater for subsequent Elvis screenings because I do not like being made part of a captive audience.
It’s fine if other people enjoy these shows, but imitators are just not for me. When I want to see live musical performances, I go to concerts of people who perform as themselves. When I want to see an Elvis performance, I watch one of the multitudes of releases with authentic footage and music of the real Elvis.
Elvis is not a fictional character. This is not like some new actor taking over the role of James T. Kirk, Superman, or James Bond to continue the adventure for subsequent generations. There is only one Elvis Presley.
It may seem that I am making sweeping statements about imitators that lump together the very best of the tribute artists with the very worst of the disgraceful buffoons. I realize there is a vast difference.
However, even the greatest Elvis tribute artist of all time (whoever) is not Elvis Presley. The closest thing to seeing Elvis in person is to watch and listen to actual footage and music of him performing live. No one will ever convince me otherwise on this point.