Keepers of the Elvis Presley phenomenon

Elvis rehearsing in 1970

Elvis rehearsing in 1970

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 phenomenon

People have been predicting the end of the “Elvis Presley phenomenon” 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 phenomenon 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 phenomenon 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 phenomenon was over at this point, many said.

Elvis in 1962

Elvis in 1962

Yet, it turned out, that not even Elvis could destroy the Elvis Presley phenomenon. 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 phenomenon 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 phenomenon 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 phenomenon 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 phenomenon 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 phenomenon 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.

Elvis in 1956

Elvis in 1956

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16 thoughts on “Keepers of the Elvis Presley phenomenon

  1. Fred Wolfe

    There is only one Elvis. Certainly there is a demand for impersonators good and bad. The single biggest request on Gigmaster’s (an entertainment booking site) is for Elvis impersonators. The guys out there reminding people of Elvis, certainly helps keep his legacy alive. Why are Elvis impersonators wanted? Because people still want Elvis and will take a diluted product even if its an impersonator. Look at all the garbage the Colonel sold to the masses while Elvis was alive and all the crap they still license. There are more Elvis impersonators by a factor of 100 over all the celebrity impersonators combined. They are making more money too. People love Elvis still and the closest they will ever get to him may just be an impersonator. Like everyone, we all hate the cartoon Elvii. But even Elvis had become a cartoon of himself by letting himself go. Even the media was mocking him while he was alive for becoming so fat. Look at the July 1976 cover of National Lampoon. Google it and see. Elvis letting himself go is to blame for the preponderance of fat impersonators. I call being a fat Elvis, “the last gasp/refuge of the fat guy”. After all, whom else could he impersonate?
    Of course Elvis impersonators are mocked and always will be. There’s not one of them with the talent to be Elvis. He was one of a kind. There will never be another, which is why he is the King. I dont really dig that EPE is promoting Elvis impersonators, but they own the image and they can do as they see fit. They want money to use the name Elvis in Elvis impersonator events. Just ask them. Its about the bread Fred. Why do you think EPE wont release more footage from Elvis on Tour? Because they wont pay the royalties. (get yourself a bootleg copy, really). I just want more Elvis too but that decision, like the release of EP In Concert, is out of our hands. There’s still plenty of footage of Elvis TTWII in the can too. Whole concerts. Release MSG with all the dialogue please!

    • Fred, I’d been interested in hearing your opinion on all of this, so thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Moving on from the imitator subject, you also raise some points about unreleased Elvis material.

      While they own the ELVIS, Aloha From Hawaii, and Elvis In Concert television specials, EPE unfortunately does not own That’s The Way It Is, Elvis On Tour, or any of his other movies. Warner Brothers owns those two concert documentary movies, as well as several of his other films.

      Based upon the brilliant jobs they did with the ELVIS and Aloha From Hawaii deluxe editions, I’m convinced that EPE would have released far more That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour footage by now if they did own the films – particularly in the case of That’s The Way It Is.

      Some in the know have told me that EPE has even approached Warner Brothers over the years in attempts to encourage more be released or even to explore the possibility of purchasing or licensing the footage, but to no avail.

      While Warner Brothers/Turner Home Entertainment assembled an excellent “special edition” re-edit of That’s The Way It Is for the film’s 30th anniversary in 2000, the 2001 home video release was marred by a number of factors, including the airing of the new version on television on the eve of release, the non-inclusion of the original theatrical version in the package (meaning that certain songs were now completely absent), and the guffaw of having to delay the release and remove “bonus footage” that had been promoted but for which no one had bothered to secure the song royalties.

      Elvis fans being Elvis fans were not happy about these events, and some avoided the VHS and DVD releases. Sales suffered and Warner undoubtedly points to that (without taking into account their own mistakes) when considering future Elvis releases.

      By the time they got around to releasing Elvis On Tour to DVD and Blu-ray a decade later, I would have thought Warner Brothers had learned its lesson. As covered here on The Mystery Train Blog, Warner’s promotional material included references to several songs that were not part of the original movie. It turned out that they also were not part of the 2010 release, either.

      My personal opinion is that this huge mistake occurred because someone in the marketing department assumed the concert set lists included inside the Elvis On Tour Blu-ray book package were actually track listings for the enclosed Blu-ray (if only).

      Incidentally, for Warner Brother’s other films, such as Dirty Harry, extensive bonus material, including documentaries, are included with the Blu-ray book package. Not in the case of Elvis On Tour, of course, which was the first-ever bare-bones release in this format. The only thing included was a modified version of the original movie only.

      Of course, everyone remembers that Warner failed to successfully contact songwriter Chuck Berry in order to work out an agreement to use “Johnny B. Goode” on the opening credits of Elvis On Tour. It was not even that the negotiations failed, but they could not even reach him to begin the negotiations.

      EPE does share some blame on this aspect, though, as they suggested a 1972 live version of “Don’t Be Cruel” as an appropriate alternative. Many fans boycotted the release in protest of this change – announced on the eve of release only because Elvis sites, including this one, pressured Warner to release a statement when related rumors began to fly. Fans boycotted and once again, Warner has disappointing sales figures to consider when determining whether to release future Elvis projects.

      While I understand why some fans like to protest with their wallets, I feel these kinds of boycotts can often be self-defeating – particularly when it comes to a niche product like an Elvis concert release.

      The fan thinks, “You didn’t spend the money to make this the best release possible, so I’m not interested.” The studio thinks, “It’s a good thing we didn’t spend the money to make this the best release possible, because the fans obviously are no longer interested.”

      When you say “release MSG with all the dialogue please,” I’m not sure what you mean. Are you sure dialogue is missing from the Madison Square Garden concert?

      It is my understanding that the version on the recent Prince From Another Planet boxed set is the complete, unedited Madison Square Garden concert (I’m assuming you’re referencing the June 10 evening show first released on As Recorded At Madison Square Garden).

      The only additional items on it compared to the original LP are Elvis clearing his throat before one song (a must-hear… just kidding) and a longer “Elvis has left the building” speech at the end. Other than the new mix and mastering, the rest of the show is identical. There were apparently no other edits, unless you have information to the contrary.

      Sorry for the long-winded response. (This could have been its own separate post, too.) Thanks again.

      • Fred Wolfe

        thank you for the great reply Troy.
        If you listen closely to the MSG LP there are edits in between songs, they don’t flow as they should. By that i mean, you should hear on any live album, just a moment from track transition not a loss of sound altogether. An example would be when “Never Been To Spain” stops and the audience applause dies a bit, you have and almost instant transition into “You Dont Have To Say You Love Me”. There has to be more. Another example is the omission on Aloha of Elvis talking about Charlie Hodge, describing him as his “all around flunky”. To me the stage patter is another essence of the experience we’re missing. At the time of the release, I’m sure that these were time considerations (along with Ronnie Tutt’s alleged speeding up of MSG). But like any live album, i suppose producers have to make omissions and edits necessary to make their vision of the album.
        As for me, I want to hear Elvis’ stage patter. The little bits of communication between him and the members of his group. That little bit, to me, makes Elvis more human. I want to hear him talk, make it real. Not just the songs. I suppose that’s why I’m such a fan of the live stuff. I thought the Live in Memphis LP (original release) was brilliant, but again, edited. Sadly the complete show CD was mixed so badly it almost killed it for me. That release was criminal. I suppose its just me.
        I do have hope for the future though.

        • Someday, I’ll go back and compare all of the song transitions between the original As Recorded At Madison Square Garden and the recent Prince From Another Planet to see what, if anything, I can determine.

          As a general principal, I agree that Elvis’ concert dialogue should not be cut – particularly in the case of a “full” concert release. This may have been an issue in the record era, but only a handful of Elvis’ concerts were so long that an individual show could not fit on a single CD. I enjoy hearing his stage patter, even though, understandably, it is repetitive between shows of a similar timeframe. We are so spoiled as fans as to be able to listen to multiple shows from the same day!

          In my opinion, at least of all the shows I’ve heard, Elvis seemed to hit the best combination of talking and singing in the August 1970 shows. He talked perhaps a bit too much in the 1969 shows, and then took almost the opposite approach by 1972. Even on unedited concerts, he talks much less on stage in 1972 and 1973 – something I definitely miss when hearing those shows.

          I’m not a musician, so I cannot independently verify this, but I recall reading several years ago that Ronnie Tutt’s memory of the Madison Square Garden audio being sped up on the 1972 record release was proven false. [I read it on the Internet, so it must be true.] The songs are apparently still within the correct pitch range, which wouldn’t be the case if the speed had been tampered with using the technology available at the time. For what’s its worth, the new mastering on Prince From Another Planet also reveals the songs to be the same speed as the original release.

          The complete Aloha From Hawaii, including the “lying like a rug,” “general flunky,” “Jack Lord is in the audience” and other bits cut out of the original 2-LP set, was finally released on CD in 1998. Of course, this is also available on the 2004 Deluxe Edition DVD.

          Unfortunately, only the edited version will apparently appear on the Legacy Edition CD coming next month. I can understand wanting to respect the original release, but there’s also something to be said for respecting Elvis’ original show. The real draw of that release for some is the remixed/remastered rehearsal show, but I’m one of the three people on the planet satisfied with the 1988 Alternate Aloha CD.

          I know that some fans dislike the mix on the 2004 FTD edition of Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis. It doesn’t bother me, and I always go to this one over the severely edited original release. I’m with you, though, in being curious as to why they made slight edits to a few of his innocuous comments in the 2004 release. I could be remembering wrong, but I believe there might have been a false start that they took out as well. Maybe they will have another go at that one at some point in the future. Though not perfect (what is), FTD has actually come a long way in its approach since 2004.

  2. Beautifully written and needless to say, I agree, there is one Elvis. After seeing some of the best ETAs, who have the ability to provide as perfect an illusion as possible of Elvis, they are fall so very short.

    In addition, there is another odd phenomena which you touched on in your article about ETAs who may or may not be Elvis fans. Traveling about California, Nevada, and Arizona attending numerous contests and concerts there has been a shift in the fan base. Many fans are fans of the impersonator rather than Elvis. Perhaps it’s not a phenomena and may be just the natural evolution of celebrity admiration. You are a professional writer and it might be an interesting topic to research and write about.

    • By the way, can I reblog your post?

    • Thanks, Jim. It doesn’t surprise me that imitators have their own fans. I would think most performers do, imitators or otherwise, or they would soon be out of the business.

      * * *

      You may have me confused with someone else, as I’m actually not a professional writer. At this point, this is just a fun little hobby for me.

  3. Reblogged this on Pompadour.

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  7. Chris Webb

    Imitation it is said the biggest form of flattery and as a professional Radio Dj i have no problem in playing imitators(good ones that is) of anyone and get really annoyed at the knockers who cannot see that keeping Elvis,s name and image out there is of paramount importance to future music lovers. I love to hear other versions of songs to see how someone else does it, hears and interprets it. Example the stray cats when they did the rockabilly overdub of Elvis sun records etc.I do two Elvis shows a year and have had purists phone in and critisize in about equal numbers to people who like the song I played. I have put reviews on Amazon for a long time on this subject and have preached this ideaology for decades. Music has many facets, knows no colour or creed or direction and every song has to be evaluated as an individual listening experience. Change that and you ruin music forever. I aggree I have no time for clowns either and would not support anyone or anything that tries to put any artist of considerable talent like Elvis down.Many of us never witnessed the great man so let us have something as there are people out there who are trying their best to make others happy all over the world. I hear every week that people want the original song etc and when you point out the song is a hundred years old or more they fall silent. They fail to realise they found THE VERSION they liked and that is the whole point. To all the knockers, think outside the square

    • Thanks for the comments, Chris. To clarify, I have nothing against fans who enjoy imitators, but it is just not for me. In my mind, I think of an Elvis imitator as someone who dons a supposedly Elvis-inspired costume and changes their voice in an attempt to sound like (or parody) Elvis.

      I personally have no problem with artists doing their own versions of “Elvis” songs in their own styles/interpretations. In fact, I often enjoy them. Though blasphemy to some, I even prefer Amy Grant’s 1992 version of “Love Me Tender” over Elvis’s 1956 studio version – and there are probably a few other examples like that if I took the time to think about it.

      As you noted, Elvis’s version was often not the first released anyway (“Love Me Tender,” of course, had been around in a different form for nearly 100 years). I also do not mind overdubbed or “remixed” versions of Elvis songs, as long as the originals remain available. I was one of the few supporters of the Viva Elvis album a few years back, for instance.

      I am glad that people find inspiration in music of the past, for without such inspiration, the world would have never heard of Elvis Presley.

      • Chris Webb

        Hi Troy. Thanks for your thoughts.It seems we think alike. All artists will tell you they were influenced by someone and aspire to be like them sometimes without knowing it even me and you. Take the obvious Tom Jones, shakin stevens etc and Elvis wanting to be james dean or the beach boys doing what dick dale invented(surf music). Of all that is said Elvis had the complete package, looks, moves, clothes and most important appealing to men and women who just happened to be looking for that someone at that time to look up to. Yes it all came together perfectly and the chance of that happening again is unlikely. No one will replace the real Elvis. I wish graceland would stop a lot of the tacky merchandise. I wish some impersonators would treat him with the respect he deserves and that the music listeners of today learn what he gave to the world, a lot not realising that generations of musicians only picked up a guitar because of Elvis. My home is a shrine to rock n roll music and memorabilia and i never put anyone in the business down.I was asked to do a stupid take off once and refused for a comedy outfit, yet i did a wedding dressed tastefully as Elvis in my 59 cadillac which made people happy so why not.There is a lot of fans out there and i play him on my radio show most weeks. My Dad was a musician and he said to soak up every kind of music out there. I think he was right.There is many ways to do a song and Elvis could probably have done most of them. Unique.

        • Thanks, Chris, for your insightful contributions to this post’s comments thread. I also agree with your Dad’s advice to “soak up every kind of music.” There is so much available out there, no reason to limit ourselves to one genre or even one performer, for that matter.

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