INVERNESS – Don’t call them impersonators. The men who do this will tell you that any schmo can impersonate. That “impersonator” is akin to “impostor.” That Elvis tribute artists are, well, artists.
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, one such artist leaned against the brown, metal facade of the Citrus County Auditorium, at the edge of a fairgrounds in a rural town with no major highway connection, and reflected on how he got there. Bill Cherry was big and wore a Harley Davidson bandana. A tank top showed off arms more jacked than Elvis’ ever were, and his blue eyes were cloudier. He doesn’t do an Elvis voice offstage, but he’s got Elvis in his voice. He doesn’t give his age, but he remembers clearly the day Elvis died.
“The thing people get wrong,” he said, “is they think that we think we are Elvis.”
No one can be Elvis, said Cherry, one of only 15 Elvis tribute artists ever crowned an Ultimate Elvis in an Elvis Presley Enterprises-sanctioned competition at Graceland. Not even close.
“You have the ministers that preach the gospel, right? They didn’t write it, but they preach it,” he said. “We sing the songs, but the godhead is God.”
Did you expect that a story about guys who don white jumpsuits, heavy makeup and $2,500 wigs to sing old songs in a familiar vibrato to retiree-heavy crowds of women in bejeweled Elvis shirts would be a laugh? I did, when I set off to cover the first night of Elvis: The Summer Festival, which recently enjoyed a five-day local run.
But while the world of Elvis tributes definitely can be funny ― Elvis himself could be funny ― it’s no joke.
There are Elvis fans, and then there are fans of the modern Elvis live concert experience. Devotees of the tribute artists want more than a recording can give. In small towns and theaters across America, a dedicated group of professionals offers what they seek. To be clear, Elvis, the legend, needs no help preserving his legacy. Tribute artists are stoking the fires of something different. They keep alive a bit of how it felt to sit feet from pure, pulsing charisma.
The festival kicking off a few hours later boasted a star-studded lineup within the Elvis tribute universe. Among the dozen-plus performers were five Ultimate Elvises, several Images of the King titleists, the “best 50s Elvis in the U.K.,” a Canadian Grand Champion, an Elvis Extravaganza winner and the world’s only holder of four consecutive Elvis Week titles. Not to mention champions of Tupelo, Branson, Niagara Falls, Lake George, the Poconos and Brunswick.
Opening night of the local festival would be only for those couple hundred hardcore five-day passholders, the ones who’d traveled from Ohio, England, New Zealand. The ones who go to as many tributes a year as they possibly can, lining up after shows to receive kisses on the cheek from the stars. Soon they would roll in with cars airbrushed with young ‘50s pompadour Elvis and campy ‘70s Elvis, and in motorized scooters with Elvis plates.
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They are Elvis fans, of course, but they are also fans of specific tribute artists. They buy CDs filled with cover versions of “Suspicious Minds” and “If I Can Dream” and T-shirts printed with their almost-Elvis faces.
Cherry sang Elvis to entertain his mom as a little kid. He first performed publicly as a young adult in the mid-1980s. Years later, working as a welder at a steel foundry in St. Louis, he performed Elvis on the side. When union rules stopped him from taking time off for a show, though, he rolled the dice and went all-in.
“I’ve never had another job,” he said, “but sometimes I drive past that foundry and look at it. It’s so dirty, and I think, I’ve been to England, Italy, Spain, cruise ships, places I never would have seen. I’ve been blessed, all because of Elvis.”
One might ask, how long can this Elvis thing go on? Much of the audience is aging, and so are some of the artists, who, like Cherry, long ago outlived the king himself. Elvis died at 42 and would now be nearly 90.
“Someone will always listen to his music,” Cherry said. “But this part of it, the people who want a taste of what it was like to see Elvis live in the room, well, everything has its time.”
Elvis’ wave of popularity may have finally crested, Cherry believes, but he’s grateful to ride it for as long as it makes sense.
No artist in history has inspired the depth and breadth of live tributes as Elvis. Who knows why, but one theory is that it was Elvis’ reclusiveness before dying young. That someone so explosively fascinating was such a rare commodity meant that even the chance to see a facsimile was extremely appealing.
With the evening of showtime closing in, Cherry left for the rental house where he was staying with some other Elvises. (In Elvis world, competitions can be tense, but touring gigs build a sense of brotherhood, the Elvises said.)
Preparations continued in the old-school auditorium, and backstage another Elvis was fielding last-minute calls. Cote Deonath, at only 26, is a highly experienced Elvis when you consider his first public performance was at 3, wearing a tiny gold lamé suit.
He would perform that night, but Deonath also owns the company that produces the Inverness festival, helping carry on the town’s long Elvis fixation. With a postwar citrus stand operating just up the street from the theater, the place still looks much like the small, Old Florida town where a young Elvis arrived in 1961 to film scenes for his movie “Follow That Dream.” Locals waited hours to get a glimpse of him, and the courthouse where Elvis filmed the final scene is now a local history museum.
When Deonath was an unruly toddler, his grandmother showed him “Follow That Dream.” He sat perfectly still, so she showed him again. As a boy, growing up in the area, he sang for tourists on “Follow That Dream” tours.
The Inverness show is just one part of Deonath’s burgeoning Elvis-tribute empire that in five years has grown into a slate of annual festivals. Most importantly, Deonath had recently secured the rights to use Elvis’ name and image in his marketing. Before that, he’d had to signal toward fans with titles like the “King Creole Extravaganza.”
He is earnest, enthusiastically motor-mouthed and a true believer that the Elvis tribute industry can actually grow. He has seen younger faces in the crowd since the 2022 Oscar-nominated film “Elvis,” and he feels something bubbling. “The sky is the limit,” Deonath said. “Do I think we’re going to pack out stadiums? No. But can we get up to 2,000, 3,000-seaters? Absolutely, 100%.”
He’s 5 feet, 5 inches and swarthier than the other Elvises, traits he points out himself to illustrate that a tribute artist with talent doesn’t have to be a traditional Elvis right off the shelf. If the older Cherry is cool, confident, been-around-the-block Elvis, Deonath is inspirational Elvis. Comeback Special 1968 Elvis.
Kids bullied him in high school when they found out he was playing Elvis on weekends. “Elvis wasn’t cool then,” he said. When he was 18, attending firefighter EMT school and living with his dad, he got a gig on a tribute cruise. “My first taste of freedom out of the nest.”
He told the Elvises onboard that it was just a hobby. “They looked at me and were like, ‘Kid, this isn’t a hobby for you.’ They knew. And by the time we got off that boat, I knew.”
He left school. Six years ago, he took a chance, promoting his own solo Elvis show at the same Inverness theater. Twenty years old with $16,000 on the line. The 800-capacity show sold out. Now, his company employs his mother, friends and other family members.
“That’s what I think about when I see these people from high school, and they’re still here drinking in the same bars, and they sarcastically tell me, ‘Oh that’s really cool you’re still doing the Elvis thing.’ And I just got back from Spain.”
Out in the auditorium, another Elvis sat alone. Moses Snow was 20, with a mysterious air and a head of jet black greaser hair awaiting the grease, nodding along to the Elvis rehearsing on stage. As employees paused their bustling preparations to shake his hand, he maintained a casual aloofness. He was the first Elvis there who looked like Elvis when not in costume, tall and trim with an impossibly cool black denim jacket and suede boots, and I swear I heard someone call him “the kid.”
Snow portrays the early, rockabilly Elvis. An Elvis era one might call “Hot Elvis.”
He found Elvis at 13 while singing karaoke. “Blue Christmas” popped up. Not long after, near his home in Texas, his family visited a cafe where a tribute artist was performing. Snow’s dad told the guy his son sang Elvis. The guy invited Snow on stage. He sang “Blue Suede Shoes,” and that was that.
Google Snow and you might land on a video of him at 18 performing in a hotel conference room, singing as he works his way down a row of swooning gray-haired women, giving each a kiss on the cheek.
“I picked up on a lot of things that are appealing to our demographic,” he said, “just by watching the older guys.”
Like a lot of 20-year-olds, he’s not stressing the future too much. He is part of an initiative aimed at introducing The King to young audiences. The costumes might grow less important as fewer people remember the era firsthand, he predicts, and the songs might get remixed. But they’ll still be singing Elvis.
The fans filed in, many early, greeting each other with hugs. The show began not with a song but with a panel discussion that included two Elvises from England (one performed his first gig at a tea party) and another from Alabama. They talked about makeup tips from their daughters, the plight of a bald Elvis and sideburn mishaps (coolest move: pulling off a loose sideburn and sticking it to their chest during a show).
The Elvises went backstage to transform, the lights went down, and when they came back up, giant block letters were blazing white and bright, covering the back of the stage: E-L-V-I-S. The crowd was seated like at an old nightclub, with round tables set right up to the stage, which had a long runway jutting into the audience.
Snow, the youngest Elvis, stood on stage looking down. The live band started up, and when the spotlight hit him, he sang, “It was a night, ooh what a night,” in a shockingly mature and uncanny Elvis wail and energy shot through the room. Snow’s set was filled with the kind of moves that once made TV censors decree that Elvis be shown only from the waist up. It climaxed with him leaning back in a limbo stance and repeatedly thrusting his pelvis toward the sky during “Such a Night,” to high-pitched screams.
Deonath hit the stage in a white jumpsuit with a giant Aztec sun symbol across the torso. He smiled vibrantly, and during “For the Good Times,” held a woman’s hand. He pretended he was trying to yank it away but couldn’t escape her grip. “You’re going to rip my arm out of the socket,” he drawled, getting laughs.
Cherry performed last, moving on stage with supreme swagger. A perfect lip snarl. One spastic leg. After so many years, he knew how to withhold, withhold, and boom — he’d deploy a hip wriggle or a karate punch that made the crowd explode. When he said “If Your Head Is In the Sand” would be the last of the night, the crowd cried out.
When the lights came back on, four generations of women from one family slowly stood from their table. A girl in her early teens, genuinely excited, said, “Come on, Grandma!” and led an older woman toward the faux gates of Graceland, where the Elvises would be waiting.
None of those men are Elvis. They know it, the fans know it, and yet they are all Elvis. Whatever it was in Elvis that burned so bright that it still hasn’t completely gone out all these decades later, it was still burning hot in a little theater in the middle of nowhere. It won’t go on forever, but it’s not gone yet.