The Evolution of Elvis Tribute — Part 1

One of my favorite events at the Collingwood (Ontario) Elvis Festival is the Street Party.  It’s free, it lasts over eight hours, and you can bring your own food and beverage of choice.  There’s a big stage, a monster sound system, and a great eight-piece band that seems to know every song Elvis ever recorded.  Over 100 performers each sing one Elvis song, so you get to see both the good and the bad in Elvis Tribute Artists (ETAs).  However, on the last night of the festival, they have the finals competitions, and in the professional category you see nothing but the really good ones.

During Elvis Week 2007, the finals of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest moved the bar even higher.  As a result, I think we have reached a new era for traveling Elvis Tribute Artist shows.  Jim Lane, a friend of mine, recently attended the Elvis Birthday Tour 2008, and he sent me an article he wrote about it.  I’d like to share excerpts of it here, and comment on a few things.

Jim started out, “Merrillville, Indiana, was the place to be on Saturday, January 5 for approximately 3,000 fans attending the Elvis Birthday Tour 2008, third stop on a seven-city tour.”  Merrillville sounds like a sleepy little town lucky to have 3,000 residents total, but it is in the greater Chicago area, and lots of folks live nearby.  Notice the name of the show:  Elvis Birthday Tour 2008.  The usual catch words for ETA shows were missing.  No “Salute to Elvis,” or “Tribute to Elvis,” or “Memories of Elvis.”  The shows were all of these things, of course, but the marketing pitch was different.  I’m willing to bet we will see Elvis Birthday Tours in 2009, 2010, and beyond.

The attendance count of 3,000 is notable as well.  Tickets went for $36 and $50, so folks had to be confident of a first-class show before deciding to plunk down that kind of money.  Jim’s next sentence shows why that was such an easy choice:  “Backed by the Fabulous Ambassador Band and with special guests drummer DJ Fontana and the soulful harmony group the Sweet Inspirations, the evening’s entertainment features three of the best Elvis Tribute Artists in the business, Donny Edwards, Ryan Pelton, and Shawn Klush.” 

It wasn’t just Jim’s opinion that these are three of the best ETAs.  A growing number of Elvis fans around the country have learned of the accomplishments of these three.  Donny Edwards is the 2006 and 2007 “Tribute to the King” Grand Champion.  Ryan Pelton is a former “Images of Elvis” winner.  Shawn Klush was the recent winner of both the “Worlds Greatest Elvis “ competition in Britain and the “Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist” contest at Elvis Week 2007.  Big names pulling big crowds in seven cities.  Other stops included Skokie, IL (1/3), Aurora, IL (1/4), Cleveland (1/6), Indianapolis (1/11), Cincinnati (1/12), and Louisville (1/13).

I think it is also significant that the show included DJ Fontana and The Sweet Inspirations.  Elvis’ original drummer and his 70s vocal backing group wouldn’t add their talents to anything but outstanding tribute shows.

Back to my friend’s observations: “Starting with a widescreen collage of boyhood photos and performance shots of the original ‘King of Rock & Roll,’ the three hour live show was a chronological retrospective of Presley’s amazing body of work.”  Three hours – wow — the folks sure got their money’s worth.  The wide-screen collage is not original, but it is still a nice touch that everyone enjoys.

Jim continues in his review, “Donny Edwards came out singing many of Elvis’ early hits and immediately bonded with the audience.”  This is always my favorite part of the Elvis tribute shows.  When an ETA does a good job of reproducing Elvis’ body moves, he’s a winner in my book.

“Next Ryan Pelton appeared on stage dressed in an Army uniform with a duffel bag over his shoulder.  After doing hits that were released while Elvis was in the Army, he went out in the audience and, while singing ‘Teddy Bear,’ threw stuffed teddy bears into the crowd.”  Now, that’s a nice touch, and I’ll bet everybody who caught one was absolutely thrilled.  After a brief interlude, he returned on stage in a white swimsuit and Hawaiian shirt open in front.”  There have been lots of ETA concerts I haven’t seen, so maybe this has been done before, but either way, it is a fine addition to the program.  If you are going to sing songs from Elvis’ movies, why not dress the part?  Elvis did a lot of beach movies, so this is perfect.

Jim continues, “Then Donnie returned dressed in a prison suit to sing ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and a few more numbers.”  This has been done before by many ETAs, and it is always well received.  A show without it would now seem to have a major void. 

“With the familiar Elvis logo from the ’68 Comeback Special in the background, Ryan reappeared in the famous black leather outfit and performed songs from that show.  All in all, the first set was sensational, with many women, both young and middle-aged, rushing the stage to pass notes or flowers to the performers and receive a kiss in return.”  I’ve seen this phenomenon, and it amazes me every time.  These guys may not be Elvis, but they’re sure getting big-time adoration.  It’s so cool that much of it is from ‘young girls’ who never saw the real thing.  Donny and Ryan are such good performers that they are creating their own fan base.

Next week – Shawn Klush.

©  2008   Philip R Arnold   All Rights Reserved

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