Rhinestone Crusader

Dead Elvis at Sunrise promises morning in America

I've worked with the Jordanaires and D.J. Fontana," says Elvis Presley, naming his long-time backup vocalists and drummer. Throwing his head back and curling his lip in the lobby of Fort Lauderdale's Sunrise Musical Theatre January 21, he adds, "I've even worked for Elvis Presley Enterprises." All this may sound a little funny coming from the King himself, but then, of course, this is not really the King.

This is Chris MacDonald, a professional Elvis impersonator in a black leather outfit reminiscent of one Elvis himself wore back in 1968. His long, jet black hair is piled high atop his head, save the obligatory cascade over the forehead. He will soon be singing along to prerecorded tracks of Elvis' biggest hits. Majic 102.7 (WMXJ-FM) is sponsoring MacDonald's karaoke Elvis show to entertain the crowd that gathers before the night's featured event: Elvis -- The Concert, a combination video/live-action show that's been touring the United States and abroad since 1998.

More Elvises mingle in the lobby, most of them sporting the early '70s Vegas look. Some stroll over to take a peek at MacDonald's act. Many have doubtless seen it before. Almost all of them are in the business of being Elvis Presley. MacDonald is the most convincing of all, but, then again, he's the only Elvis actually getting paid to work the lobby tonight.

Elvis: still larger than life
Steve Satterwhite
Elvis: still larger than life
Elvis impersonator Joe Trites, with his uncle Tony, weighs in before the show
Elvis impersonator Joe Trites, with his uncle Tony, weighs in before the show

Elvis -- The Concert features the real deal as nothing more than a giant projection on a video screen. For the King's current world tour, the lead vocal track has been isolated from concert footage so that it is the only sound coming from the projected image. Culled from two concert rockumentaries, Elvis, That's the Way It Is (1970) and Elvis on Tour(1972), as well as from the landmark 1973 live television concert, Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii, which was seen by a billion people worldwide, the show unfolds exactly like the Elvis shows of the era. The recorded voice is accompanied by the same big band that backed the living Elvis: strings, horns, lead guitarist James Burton, bass guitarist Jerry Scheff, pianist Glen D. Hardin, drummer Ronnie Tutt (these four being the core of Elvis' touring and recording band) and not one but two vocal groups. Tonight they are the Sweet Inspirations, the black female gospel group that echoed Elvis on-stage and on vinyl from 1969 through 1977, and three former members of the Imperials, male gospel singers who worked with him from 1969 to 1971.

Out in the lobby, one impersonator gripes that J.D. Sumner and the Stamps won't be appearing on this particular evening. (The group, closely identified with Elvis, alternates tour dates with the Imperials.) I don't have the heart to tell him that Sumner, who had one of the most distinctive bass voices in music, passed away a little more than two years ago. Maybe he wouldn't have cared. Hell, Elvis has been dead a lot longer, and fans are still coming out to see him.

"I've been doing Elvis for about 35 years," says Gene Allen, one of many fans in costume, as he hands me an oversize business card featuring a photo of himself in a white rhinestone-studded jumpsuit. Gene has played Elvis for almost as long as Elvis played Elvis. He's brought his young son, Jonathan, to the show. Father and son are both dressed in a style that recalls the mid-'60s movie Elvis: a tight-fitting but traditional red jacket and a white shirt open at the collar. Jonathan, who wears his reddish hair in a pompadour, would like to play Elvis when he grows up but isn't sure he has what it takes. His father puts his arm around him and tells him he'll be just fine.


The Sunrise Musical Theatre swells as the 16-piece orchestra plays the opening strains of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra," the theme song musical director Joe Guercio lifted long ago from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nestled amid the horn and string sections, the giant screen reveals a white-jumpsuited Elvis, in a clip from Aloha from Hawaii, walking out onto a large stage, hitting his mark, and attacking the first bars of the Chuck Willis classic "C.C. Rider." Elvis sounds as good and moves as well as he did 30 years ago, which is to say he -- even as a hologram -- is electrifying. The vocal track is deep, soulful, and formidable. The man on the screen is completely lost in the music.

The backup singers and core musicians on the Sunrise stage do their thing, just like they did all those years ago. Guitarist Burton, clad in a sequined vest at center stage, gets his licks in. The Sweet Inspirations, all dressed in black, take off with a piercing falsetto. Marked by brass-fueled crescendos, the call-and-response exchanges between the projected Elvis and his embodied vocalists are at once soulful and bombastic.

"With the screen he's there," Guercio tells me before the show, without the slightest trace of cynicism, "and we give him the same effort we always gave him." He is unabashed in his defense of the concept of video resurrection, claiming to have pioneered the production of music from beyond the grave in the late '70s, when he was performing with Natalie Cole and worked her late father's recordings into their stage show. "She never gave me credit for coming up with that idea," says Guercio, less upset over the perceived slight than simply eager to set the record straight.

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