The King lives on as fans soak up tributes to their idol
Elvis tribute artist Trent Carlini expertly brushed bronze-colored makeup on the face of fellow tribute artist Donny Edwards. “I started out with model cars, and now I’m doing Donny,” Carlini said, finally judging Edwards good to go as one of 24 contestants in the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest.
Carlini then expertly applied black eyeliner in two deft strokes to his own lower eyelids, preparing to do battle in the most crucial of the dueling Elvis contests in a city bursting at the seams with jumpsuits for the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death.
Finals of the Ultimate Elvis contest come Friday night.
At the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, that means move over, Rachmaninoff. On Sunday, Elvis took
over a concert hall that’s normally a sanctuary for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. It became ground zero for Ultimate Elvis. “Peace in the Valley” would segue to “Polk Salad Annie.” Jumpsuits and gold lame jackets, sideburns and coal-black hair were like magician’s props conjuring the King of Rock and Roll as if he had never left the building.
“What makes it for me is if, for just a moment, I can believe,” said Elvis fan Jane Broadhurst of Brighton, England. After the first round, Carlini’s version of “Unchained Melody” and Edwards’ “Don’t Be Cruel” put them among her favorites.
Across town, Images of the King, which has been staging Elvis competitions here for 21 years, drew 87 contestants, opening Tuesday night at the Holiday Inn Select on Democrat Road at Airways.
It opened in the hotel’s 1,400-seat Grand Ballroom with a children’s showcase of male and female Elvis artists, then began a judging process that will narrow the contest to 15 to 20 finalists Friday and Saturday.
Ticket sales were nearing a sellout for the end of the week, said contest co-owner Michael Hoover, an Elvis tribute artist who helped get Tuesday’s crowd warmed up with his version of “Trouble.”
The trouble for the Images of the King contest (already barred from using the “Elvis” name) is that the best-known Elvis acts are drawn to Graceland’s own Ultimate Elvis contest. “It’s going to be tough to compete with. You’ve got a different caliber of competition,” said contestant Tracy Alan Moore of Seattle.
But contender Justin Edwards of Roland, Okla., was in both the Ultimate Elvis and the Images competitions. He didn’t make the top 10 of Ultimate Elvis, so Images is his second chance in Memphis this week. “I don’t think the new contest will hurt Images. They’ve been doing it for so many years.”
For years, a win at Images meant major bragging rights and promotional fodder for Elvis acts. Suddenly, the Ultimate Elvis contest is like the Oscars of tribute contests with Images like the Golden Globes. With Ultimate Elvis comes the potential of TV appearances and sponsorships through CKX, the New York company that owns the majority interest in EPE along with TV ratings juggernaut “American Idol.”
Images co-owner Bobbie Hoover bought the Images contest with her husband two years ago and was surprised when Graceland and EPE suddenly decided to stage their own contest in direct competition. “EPE is the head honcho, but we’re the original and it is our 21st year. We’re holding our own,” she said.
For contestants in each competition, there’s room for everyone. Generosity, like helping each other with last-minute makeup, is a long-standing tradition. “There’s a saying that ETAs (Elvis tribute artists) don’t compete against each other, but with each other,” said Donny Edwards as he left the dressing room to compete at the Cannon Center, where most competitors are full-time Elvis acts with well-traveled repertoires. They are what Graceland calls the “best of the best.”
Each won a preliminary contest at a festival or event sanctioned by Graceland and EPE with the same judging criteria as the Memphis contest. They must come as close to Elvis as possible — the look, the sound, the moves. Brandon Bennett, winner of the Tupelo Elvis Festival in Elvis’ hometown, wears starched khakis (”actually Dickies work clothes,” he says) with a few patches and gleaming black shoes for his rousing version of “G.I. Blues.”
Bennett, a former winner of the Images contest, got a standing ovation along with Shawn Klush of Pittston, Pa., who sang “My Way” and bills himself as “The Closest to the King.” Klush has been Elvis in “Legends in Concert” shows in Branson, Mo., Atlantic City and Las Vegas. To get to Memphis, he won the “Viva Las Franklin” contest at the Williamson County Fair in Franklin, Tenn.
At the Cannon Center they perform with the EAS Band before black velvet drapes as backdrop to a giant re-creation of Graceland’s iron gates suspended from the ceiling. The contestant who came the farthest to compete was Mark Anthony of Adelaide, Australia, who journeyed 9,724 miles. Three were from Canada and two from the United Kingdom. Kjell Henning Bjornestad of Lyngdal, Norway, seemed an unlikely contender, but, like the others, effected a mellow Tupelo twang.
In fact, when the first round was over, Bjornestad was among the top 10 with Carlini and Edwards, both of Las Vegas; Jeff Golden of Dothan, Ala.; Brandon Bennett of Ponchatoula, La., Paul Larcombe of Crewe, England; Jay Zanier of Guelph, Canada; Ben Klein of Spokane, Wash.; Joseph Hall of Lincoln, Neb.; and Klush.
A day later, Edwards, as if rehearsing for the finals, was among acts booked on the parking lot of the Elvis After Dark Complex just north of Graceland. In a big white tent, as if an Elvis revival, more than 1,000 fans crowded around the free weeklong attraction to hear amateurs and pros alike. “Some, like this boy (Edwards) are great, but some could use a charisma bypass,” said Iris Higgs of Yorkshire, England, seated at the edge of the crowd.
Finals of the sold-out Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest begin at 7 p.m. Friday at Cannon Center for the Performing Arts.
Tickets are still available to the Images of the King tribute artist competition at the Holiday Inn Select, 2240 Democrat Road. It is at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Ticket prices range from $15 to $30 with VIP tickets $150. Call 877-397-2660.
- Michael Lollar
No Comments Yet
You can be the first to comment!