By Jon Waterhouse
Now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.
Elvis Week 2012 took a bow yesterday. Although I’m dying to see the wife and kids, and climb between the sheets of my own bed, departing Elvis Week feels like the end of summer camp.
Old friends were reacquainted, new ones were made, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences were had all in the name of Elvis. The extended family of Elvis fans and the many Elvis world luminaries who made up this year’s Elvis Week are dispersing in different directions. The feeling is certainly bittersweet.
Not unlike summer camp, there was plenty of singing going on yesterday morning. The Morning Gospel Singin’ event took place on the Main Stage. Beginning the final day of Elvis Week with the King’s favorite music seemed apropos. I missed the beginning, but arrived in time to receive a jolt of inspiration from members of the First Assembly of God Memphis choir. These vocalists belong to the church Elvis attended during his early days in Memphis. The church’s current pastor, Tom Lindberg spoke to the crowd about the significance of the music.
“If Elvis were here today,” he said. “He’d be singing along and tapping his foot.”
Myself and some of the others around me helped pick up the slack. Jacob Newcomb gave us a spirited rendition of “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” The impressive Soul City quartet were rocking some killer harmonies. I was proud to see that half of the amazing singers in the group were bald like myself. Chalk up another victory for us chrome domes.
Leaving the Main Stage pavilion, I made my way over to the Graceland ticket booth. Before heading for home, I had to see the king’s.
After climbing into the tour shuttle bus, I slipped on the pair of headphones I was given. The Elvis tune “Welcome to My World” played as the audio portion of the Graceland tour began. I had definitely spent the past eight days at ground zero of Elvis’s world. But now it was time to go into the inner sanctum. The bus crossed Elvis Presley Boulevard, cruised through the gates of Graceland and weaved its way up the tree-lined driveway.
I stepped out of the bus and into the mansion, and spent more than an hour inside Presley’s Kingly realm and its adjacent buildings. No matter how many times I’ve visited Graceland, a feeling of amazement never fails to wash over me throughout the tour. From the Polynesian pop of the Jungle Room to the collection of gold records, stage wear and movie costumes in the Trophy Room to Presley’s final resting place in Meditation Garden, this is the ultimate spot for fans. Even those who aren’t necessarily Elvis fans when they enter are often transformed by the time they come out the other side.
I came out the other side and made my way back to Graceland Plaza. Tom Brown was holding court on the Main Stage and conducting the last of his interviews for Elvis Week 2012. If the event is indeed akin to a summer camp, then it’s Brown who’s the lead counselor.
A walking encyclopedia of Elvis knowledge in blue suede shoes, Brown helped provide some of the best Elvis Week experiences. He told me he conducted more than 40 live interviews throughout the entire nine days. The thought had my head spinning.
I caught some of his final conversations including the wonderful chat he had with trumpet player Wayne Jackson, one half of the legendary Memphis Horns. Jackson’s stories of working at Stax, playing on 86 number one records and his studio experience with Elvis Presley proved equal parts humorous and touching. Jackson explained that although he played on a lot of Elvis’s tunes, he was first and foremost a fan.
A slew of interesting and funny studio tales came courtesy of bassist Norbert Putnam, guitarist Chip Young and piano player David Briggs, each of whom recorded with Elvis. Putnam even brought his 1965 Fender Precision Bass along, the one he used on 122 Elvis records.
“When [Elvis] walked in the studio there was something that came over all of us,” Young said.
Young went on to share a story about a karate demonstration Elvis put on in the middle of a studio session. Presley had his bodyguard, Red West come at him with a gun. When the King knocked it out of West’s hand, it soared across the studio and smashed into the back of Young’s guitar.
Elvis apologized and offered to buy Young a new ax. Young replied, “It’s probably worth more now that it was without the hole.”
I left the Main Stage and scooted back to the hotel to prepare for the final round of the 2012 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist contest. The evening’s show would find the 10 finalists duking it out in song for this year’s title.
The Cannon Center in downtown Memphis was loaded to the hilt with fans. Waves of energy flowed from both the fans and performers, and rightly so. This was the biggie, and the winner would walk away with a grand prize including a whopping $20,000 check.
Jay Dupuis, Tim Hendry, Ted Torres, Pete Storm, Dwight Icenhower, Stephen Freeman, Kevin Mills, Ben Portsmouth, Mark Anthony and Victor Trevino Jr. each performed two tunes. Dupuis was the first to take the stage. Backed by The EAS Band and a giant, glowing red Elvis sign behind him, Dupuis attacked his numbers, which included a blazing version of “Suspicious Minds.”
Watching these guys display impeccable stage moves, Presley mannerisms and spot-on vocal chops was remarkably impressive. I could only speculate the exhaustive amount of time, energy and money they each put into this.
Most of the performances focused on the King’s Vegas and concert eras with the exception of Victor Trevino Jr., who channeled earlier Elvis. His physically demanding rendition of “One Night With You” saw him providing the ultimate exclamation point by purposefully falling to the ground at the end of the song.
Then there were five. Torres, Portsmouth, Storm, Trevino and Mills made the short list. Luckily I’m not a gambling man, because I had no idea where to place my bet. Mills floored the accelerator on “Polk Salad Annie,” and Portsmouth had the crowd on its feet at the close of his passionate delivery of “If I Can Dream.”
As the votes were tallied, 2011 champ Cody Slaughter hit the stage for two smoking numbers, proving why he was the one who took home last year’s title.
Host Joey Sulipeck was given the results and a few brief moments of nail biting ensued. He soon revealed that Trevino and Storm scored second and third place, respectively. But it was Portsmouth who was crowned the 2012 Ultimate ETA Contest winner.
After a round of hugs from his fellow performers, Portsmouth gushed as he was given the over-sized $20,000 check. A sea of camera flashes followed.
Hurrying out the door, I made my final trip to Graceland for the Elvis Week Farewell Dance Party at the Main Stage. The always impressive Terry Mike Jeffrey led his band through the Presley paces. This entertainer is a virtual jukebox of Elvis material, and the fans echoed their approval by cutting serious rug. Some even wound around the dance floor in a conga line to “Viva Las Vegas.” Guest vocalists Duke Mason and Jamie Aaron Kelley shared the stage, and all of the performers joined forces giving the fans one final Elvis Week rave-up.
Now it’s time to close up shop and say goodbye to Elvis Week 2012. Camp Elvis is over, and the fair is moving on, as the King once sang. My brain is still a bit mushy due to sensory overload, but I’m looking forward to sharing stories of my nine-day adventure with my family.
Walking away from a monumental event like this isn’t always easy. But it’s good to know I’ll always have the memories of Elvis Week 2012 memories pressed between the pages of my mind.
DUKE MASON: LIVING LARGE WITH ELVIS
Vocalist and guitarist Duke Mason helped close out Elvis Week 2012 as a special guest at the Farewell Dance Party with Terry Mike Jeffrey. Mason, who was born with a form of dwarfism, may be small in stature, but his voice booms to stratospheric heights. I recently chatted with him about growing up in a gospel group, working with The Jordanaires, overcoming challenges and being an Elvis fan.
Q.: You grew up around gospel music, right?
A.: My family used to travel together as a gospel group. It was mom and dad, me and my three sisters. We traveled all over the United States in a small Winnebago called a Minnie Winnie. We went down to Mexico and in to Canada. We made a couple of trips over to Jamaica. My dad had been in the gospel music business since he was 8 years old. …So when he got married and had a family we just started doing it. I always loved old quartet music. And we actually did a lot of work with J.D. Sumner and The Stamps. We worked with The Blackwoods and The Statesmen. …They used to have a quartet convention, and I think they had it here in Memphis. At the end of the quartet convention they used to have all of the groups come out. Dad being small, he’d walk out to the mike with a folding chair and stand on it. Since J.D. Sumner was so tall, he and my dad would joke with each other. One time dad got on the chair and started singing. J.D. came over, picked up dad and set him up on top of the speaker stack so he couldn’t get down. He left him up there for a song or two, and then came back and got him. [Laughs] So I grew up listening to all of that music, and it’s probably why the Elvis gospel music is the closest to my heart.
Q.: How did you become an Elvis fan?
A.: I always knew of Elvis, and I remember the day he passed away. I was 8 years old. We were in a town called Mackinaw City, Michigan. It was kind of a tourist town, and we were performing at a theatre up there. And I came back to the Minnie Winnie after doing some stuff that day and walked in and found out Elvis had passed away. At that time all I really knew was that Elvis was part of the music world and that he sang “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.” But I knew it was something significant. That night I listened to the radio, and there was a station that just played Elvis all night long, every song you could imagine. I remember sitting there and listening for hours and hours, knowing this was a huge event that had happened. …I’ve been a fan ever since.
Q.: You’ve had the amazing opportunity to work with The Jordanaires. How did that come about?
A.: I actually got to know them through Terry Mike Jeffrey. We got to be friends years ago, and he started introducing me to different people. …The first time I sang with The Jordanaires I was scared to death. Not only did these guys sing with Elvis, but they sang with Patsy Cline, Ricky Nelson and they’re still singing with people. It was just so weird, because when you watch Elvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” you see Gordon Stoker standing right there. There I was on stage and Gordon Stoker was standing right next to me. So we struck up a friendship, and I’ve done several shows with myself, my band and The Jordanaires.
Q.: Is it a challenge being a short performer?
A.: People often ask about the reaction when I walk out onstage for the first time. My wife loves to watch peoples’ faces when I come out there. At first they’re going to be drawn to the size. If I’m doing a good job, they’ll start appreciating it. It’s a little challenge to try and get people on your side. I always know the first little bit is kind of a test. They’re going to see what you’ve got. My goal is by the time I’ve done two or three songs to have them forget about the novelty of who I am and just have a good time and enjoy it. …This is the way God made me. I’ve never been angry, and there’s nothing for me to be angry about. I live an incredible life. Doors have opened for me that could have only been God. …If you can maybe encourage somebody by what you’ve done and inspire them to go past what you’ve done, then that’s what it’s all about. People have asked me if I would change my lot in life. And my answer is not a chance. I love every minute of it, and I’m still loving it.