Rhinestone Crusader

Dead Elvis at Sunrise promises morning in America

For the conductor the live show with a dead star is more than an exercise in nostalgia or technical witchcraft. "Elvis had such phenomenal respect for the people on the stage with him," remembers Guercio, trying to explain why all the original band members accepted this gig. "Most headliners just pay you. Well, he did that, but he'd also do things like give you a little look of approval during the shows. That was a real turn-on."

Of course the money doesn't hurt. Guercio and company are undoubtedly pulling down a nice chunk of change to play the same arrangements they learned three decades ago, and they don't have to take any shit from some temperamental star. But that conclusion doesn't account for the energy of the production or for the fact that no one on-stage seems to be mailing it in. Although most people in the audience keep their eyes glued to the giant screen (Why, when they've seen it all before?) the musicians and singers never cheat. The Sweets, who could easily chill on their chairs until they hear their cue, instead keep time with the band, grooving right along with the music.

There must have been something special about Elvis Presley, about that music. Maybe it was the size, the inclusiveness, of those '70s shows -- not just the number of people involved (and the fact that the cast ranged from white Southern boys on drums and guitar, to black gospel singers) but the range of music they performed.

A Sunrise fan displays a graven image of the King
A Sunrise fan displays a graven image of the King

Elvis Presley crossed all musical borders. He was an avid listener of almost every genre of American roots music -- black gospel, white gospel, R&B, soul, and country -- and was a sucker for "lite" opera and Vegas schmaltz. Who else but Elvis would ever profess to love singers as diverse as Mahalia Jackson, Mario Lanza, Jackie Wilson, Dean Martin, and Hank Williams?

The '70s concerts featured, alongside obligatory run-throughs of Elvis' earlier hits, over-the-top versions of songs such as the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge over Troubled Water," and the song that became an Elvis signature, "An American Trilogy." This material afforded Elvis the opportunity, musically and thematically, to span the scope of his lived experiences: white Holy Roller church services, old black men strumming guitars on Memphis' famed Beale Street, pickup trucks and pink Cadillacs, Tupelo and Hollywood -- from worlds without hope to others without limits.

Thirty years later sweat still pours off his face and mats his hair by the end of the show. Elvis has retraced his life's journey; he has sung songs of elation ("Burning Love") and trials too hard to bear ("You Gave Me a Mountain"), a litany of his earliest hits ("Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," "Heartbreak Hotel"), and his final chart-topper ("Suspicious Minds"). He has been building toward the most autobiographical selections in his, or for that matter, anybody's repertoire. He tears through "My Way," biting down on every line, before launching into "An American Trilogy," the song (really three songs) that, as much as any other, became a staple of his concert performances.

It is the ideal selection with which to close the show. Beginning with "Dixie," a fantasy of Southern sovereignty, then seguing into the old slave spiritual "All My Trials" before climaxing with "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the trilogy reenacts an epic journey through division, suffering, and reconciliation. Elvis renders each song intimately, suggesting that the lyrics are as much about him as they are about us. It is an illusion of solidarity, of course, a particularly distant one as our most recent election has shown. No matter, the feeling the man brought to the song endures. A woman in the Sunrise audience screams out his name. Some chuckle politely. Most don't seem to notice the incongruity of her cry.

Dead Elvis can't help but sing one last song, a curtain call of sorts, "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You." He walks over to one of his sidemen, who helps him into a cape. The performers on-stage wait for him to give the sign. He does. "Shall I stay?/Would it be a sin?" he sings. Then he tears off the cape and flings it out into the audience. No one in Sunrise reaches out to catch it. The band strikes up the traveling music, and Elvis exits the on-screen stage. For old times' sake, the Sunrise announcer informs the crowd that Elvis has, indeed, left the building. For good.

Or not quite. A large portion of the audience moves toward the stage, where they are greeted, patiently, politely, even gratefully, by Elvis' old crew. Burton, Scheff, Hardin, Tutt, Guercio, along with the Sweets and the Imperials, stand in a line on the edge of the stage, leaning down and shaking one hand after another.

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