By Jon Waterhouse
Like a gunfighter holding his hand just above his holster, mine hovered above the pants pocket containing my wallet.
The bright red Hawaiian shirt, a replica of the one Elvis wore in “Blue Hawaii,” beckoned me. It’s for sale in one of the Graceland gift shops, and this was the third time I’d contemplated a purchase. I’d wear it with Kingly pride at backyard barbecues, when I’m slicing sand at the beach and all points in between.
I want, I need it, I love it. Should I do it? Oh, the dilemmas of Elvis Week.
But before I could commit to a purchase I had to run off to the Main Stage pavilion for the first big event of day five. The Elvis Fan Club Presidents’ Event gave fans the chance to hear directly from the leadership team of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc. New Elvis-related events, merchandise, upcoming Graceland exhibits and more were revealed. Soon a flurry of more cool things to buy and experience shared brain space with that Hawaiian shirt.
Jack Soden, CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), launched things with a warm welcome. It was Soden who helped open Graceland’s doors to the public back in 1982. So it was no surprise he was greeted with a burst of appreciative applause by a venue full of fans.
EPE’s Director of Public Relations, Kevin Kern was next to the podium and announced that media representatives from around the globe are descending upon Memphis to cover Elvis Week 2012 and the 35th anniversary of Presley’s passing. First it was the Olympics in London and now they’re coming to Graceland, he said. According to Kern, getting media attention doesn’t require much heavy lifting.
“Elvis makes the phone ring,” he said.
We were then treated to a collection of recent Elvis sightings in the media including commercials using Presley songs, an Elvis tune on “Glee” and Lisa Marie Presley’s “American Idol” appearance.
Scott Williams, Vice President of Marketing and Media, gave a sneak preview of Elvis Presley’s Aloha From Hawaii 40th Anniversary Celebration taking place in Hawaii January 10 through 15, 2013. Although a full presentation happens today at 1 p.m. at the Main Stage, complete with Williams’s promise of an authentic hula dancer, he offered enough information to cause the audience to rumble like a stirring volcano. Later on Brad Wallis, President and CEO of Pacific Historic Parks, talked about his organization’s joint effort with EPE to help raise funds for the refurbishment of the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii.
The remainder of the presentation saw various EPE representatives pumping up the crowd with news about upcoming projects. This included Angie Marchese, Director of the Graceland Archives, as she announced several upcoming exhibits set to open at Graceland in the coming months. Marchese also touched on Elvis Experience Brazil, which opens in that country in September. Carol Butler, the Vice President of Licensing, showed off a gaggle of new merch from the King’s mash-up with Hello Kitty to a hip, high-end T-shirt from the folks at Tommy Hilfiger.
Next it was time for the fans to give a presentation of their own. In the tradition of the King’s giving spirit, members of Elvis Presley fan clubs had the opportunity to present donation checks to representatives of various charitable organizations.
The surprise ending came in the form of an unannounced visit by Tom Brown, who introduced James Burton, Glen Hardin and Joe Guercio. They emerged from backstage and began goofing on Brown out of the gate. The trio busted into an a cappella Tom Brown theme song of their own creation. Brown then had the guys take him on a retro tour of their Elvis concert experiences in Hawaii, Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. The interviewer closed the proceedings with that running question he’s been asking everyone: Why are we all here after 35 years? Guercio said it’s because we’re all on the same page with mutual love and respect for each other and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
I had just enough time to sink my teeth into a Big Boss Man barbecue sandwich before the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest Showcase began. We all know the Elvis live disc “An Afternoon in the Garden.” Yesterday more than 20 of the artists competing in this year’s contest gave us an afternoon in the Main Stage.
Joey Sulipeck, the Chief Meteorologist for Memphis TV station FOX13, served as host and launched the thing by introducing 14-year-old Drake Milligan, the winner of the Elvis Idol competition on the most recent Elvis Cruise. Milligan’s older brothers in arms followed. The performers were obviously saving their jump suits and leather for the real deal as they each took the stage in civilian duds.
Several international competitors made their way to Memphis for a shot at the title. Paul Fenech of Australia and Charlie Nieshio of Japan were among them. Familiar participants included Mark Anthony, who delivered “In the Ghetto,” and Ted Torres, who serenaded the crowd with “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
Backstage looked like the successful product of a cloning experiment. I stepped back into the Elvis realm and wondered if the competition ever gets unfriendly. Adam Fitzpatrick, who hails from Penticton, British Columbia, Canada, said so far so good.
“It’s great,” he continued. “Everyone’s very nice. We do it for one reason, and that’s for Elvis.”
The day’s headline attraction came a few hours later as a near-capacity crowd filed into the Main Stage pavilion. The night belonged to the Memphis Boys, the heavyweight house band of American Sound Studio in Memphis. These are the guys who provided the music for more than 100 hit songs from 1967 until the studio closed in ’72. The Memphis Boys were musical chameleons and worked magic for a variety of artists from Neil Diamond and Aretha Franklin to Wilson Pickett and Dusty Springfield. Their highest profile collaboration was, of course, with the King himself. The group recorded a total of 30 tracks with Elvis, some being his more popular cuts.
After a video introduction, guitarist Reggie Young, drummer Gene Chrisman, and keyboardists Bobby Emmons and Bobby Wood materialized. Lending a hand was Muscle Shoals legend, David Hood on bass. Back-up vocalists Ginger and Mary Holladay, both of whom appeared on those original Elvis sessions, stepped up to their mics along with additional back-up singer Drea Rhenee. The killer horn section included Jim Horn, whose pedigree includes appearing on The Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds” and working with Paul McCartney.
Elvis Radio’s DJ Argo emceed the proceedings and provided bits of background and history as lead-ins to the songs that packed the impressive set list. An instrumental jam laced with “Mystery Train” set the tone. Moments later Terry Mike Jeffrey arrived center stage to handle vocal duties on a rock solid version of the soulfully saucy Elvis tune “Wearin’ That Loved On Look.” The remarkably tight outfit held the steady groove as Jeffrey brought forth the kind of amazingly spirited performance that would’ve made Presley proud.
Jeffrey and the band delivered a three pack of Neil Diamond gems with soul stirrers “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” and “Holly Holy” paving the road for a “Sweet Caroline” sing-a-long.
With a rotating roster of lead vocalists, The Memphis Boys spent the better part of the next two hours revisiting some of the songs they helped make famous. My chin must have carpet burns, because I watched and listened in awe as the band deftly reproduced these familiar favorites with note-for-note precision.
The equally impressive Andy Childs displayed his dexterous pipes on “Always On My Mind,” The Box Tops’s “Cry Like a Baby” and a host of others. Powerhouse singer Scat Springs gave listeners an exercise in classic soul with tunes like the funky Joe Tex rumpus “I Gotcha.” Rhenee’s rendition of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” rivaled the passion of the original.
Of course the biggest crowd reaction came from the Elvis songs in the set, and the home stretch was dedicated entirely to the King. The Holladay Sisters displayed the exact same harmonic perfection they did on the 1969 recordings. Every ooh and ahh remained in tact.
Emmons delivered each little keyboard nuance on “Kentucky Rain.” And yeah, there must’ve been something in my eye around the time Young expertly replicated that opening guitar riff to “In the Ghetto.”
“Suspicious Minds” was appropriately saved for the big finish as its writer, Mark James and former American Sound Studio owner, Chips Moman absorbed it all from the audience. Jeffery and Childs shared lead vocals, and they brought the audience in for a rousing collective chorus. The energy found on stage was undeniable, and the musicians were obviously having as much fun as the fans. The crowd shared its approval with a standing ovation as the performers gathered in the middle of the stage, their arms around each other.
Still buzzed from the performance, I made my way backstage to get Jeffrey’s take on the experience.
“There’s nothing like it,” he said. “These guys are still at the top of their game, and it’s a thrill and an honor to work with them. It’s huge.”
Back at my hotel room I did my best to come down from all the elation, but I spent a large amount of time replaying the night’s events and looking forward to the day ahead. The latter includes Priscilla Presley’s appearance and my very first Candlelight Vigil.
Oh, and I couldn’t forget the upcoming Aloha From Hawaii Party. Maybe that’s a good excuse to buy that Hawaiian shirt after all? Oh, the dilemmas of Elvis Week.