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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 -- 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.
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.
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.